THE GENEROSITY of European taxpayers towards poorer countries was praised in Strasbourg last week by celebrity visitor Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world.
Mr Gates had not come to talk about bailouts, however, but rather the distribution of funds in the form of development aid to the third world. He spoke in glowing terms of the “phenomenal commitment” of many European member states, but was much less complementary about the approach of his homeland.
“It’s absolutely fair to say that the United States is not exemplary in the scale of its foreign aid,” he said.
America funded much scientific work into diseases, and was “the largest AIDs donor, the largest malaria donor”, but was only spending about a third of what it should spend in percentage terms.
“And I certainly do everything I can to push for that to increase. There was a commitment to double it in the campaign but its clear today that not only won’t it get doubled but we’re fighting for it not to get cut.”
He told the European Parliament’s development committee that the majority of all aid that goes to poor countries comes from Europe, and said he wanted to thank voters for their generosity.
But he stressed the necessity to “get the word out” about successful aid programmes, “because there’s a lot of the people who vote, whose taxes fund these things, that don’t really understand the incredibly positive things that their generosity is allowing”.
Mr Gates and his wife Belinda have established a charitable foundation, focused in part on tackling disease through vaccinations in developing countries, which he believe shared some goals with the European Parliament.
He said private philanthropy had a special role and should be encouraged, but it currently contributed less than two per cent of the total given to poor countries.
Mr Gates said he always knew some of his money would be misused and he tried to make sure that was less than five per cent. “Anybody tells you they have an aid programme that has no corruption, they are not measuring what’s going on.”
Those hoping Mr Gates might offer advice in solving the problems of the Eurozone’s economic crisis would have gone home disappointed, however. “I wish I had some great advice. It’s a very tricky problem in terms of instilling confidence while knowing some bills are so large you don’t want to be responsible for them.”
Mr Gates was quizzed by MEPs from across Europe about all sorts of contentious issues, including population control. He said his foundation was involved in providing reproductive health supplies, such as implants, that women could use on a voluntary basis. Some anti-AIDs programmes, such as a sex worker programme in India, promoted the use of condoms, “so that a women would protect herself and not die of AIDs”.
“My wife is Catholic,” Mr Gates revealed, “we’re not involved in abortion; we’re not involved in sterilisation. We believe that women should be healthy and be able to have as many children as they want to.”
One of the most striking things, to these Irish eyes at least, about the interior of the vast European Parliament chamber is the number of women MEPs. Thirty-five per cent of members are women, compared to our Dail’s 15 per cent.
Sisterly spirit did not prevent a former TD, Independent MEP Marian Harkin, taking a cut at fellow Irishwoman Catherine Day, secretary general of the European Commission, who described the EU-IMF bailout as “tough but sustainable” on a recent visit to Ireland. Responding critically in the European Parliament chamber, Ms Harkin insisted Ms Day was “wrong”, asking: “How is a small island of 4.4 million people supposed to cope with this madness?”
Another one of the Dail’s ‘old girls’, Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, this week encountered a problem faced by many an Irish person abroad when she was asked to reduce the speed at which she talked. The translators were having difficulty keeping up with her, the chairwoman of the Commissioner’s question session explained. Ms Geoghegan-Quinn apologised. “This happens all the time,” she admitted.