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  • Melody Song

Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg and Ways to Change the World

Changing the world has been on my mind lately.

I am watching the new Netflix series about Bill Gates called “Inside Bill Gates’s Brain”. Produced through a philanthropic lens, the first episode talked about the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates’ resolve to help developing countries with better sanitation solutions. The story goes like this. Bill read an article in the New York Times one day about children being killed by preventable diseases like diarrhea and he sprung into action to help. He wrote to twenty universities about creating green solutions for sewage treatment (only eight got back to him) and eventually built a toilet fair in China to explore innovation in public washroom and a self-sufficient sewage treatment plant in Dakar. Halfway through the episode, I paused and looked over to my husband and ask: “why is the burden of world sanitation on the shoulders of Bill Gates?”

Other mind-blowing realizations that had dawned on me include: What happens if Bill did not read the article that day in the New York Times? Why would any university (not to mention more than 10 of them) ignore a letter from Bill Gates? Why didn’t anyone else care? Should we investigate where it failed at a systemic level?

There has been much criticism of philanthropy lately, especially of billionaire philanthropy. As summarized well by Kelsey Piper:

“Take the stance of Dan Riffle, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy adviser, known for his Twitter handle ‘Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.’ ‘The bigger Jeff Bezos’s and Bill Gates’s slices of the pie are, the smaller everybody else’s slices of the pie are going to be,” he has said. “It boggles the mind that somebody thinks that that philanthropy or charity is the way that we can best address systemic societal inequality.’” Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. (, September 17, 2019)

She continued to argue that without billionaire philanthropy, some systems will, in fact, fail including the example of reproductive health care:

“This is how we’ve arrived at a point where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the biggest philanthropists in the world, are the leading providers of access to contraception worldwide, and Buffett is the leading provider of abortion access for poor women in the U.S. If you could snap your fingers and rid the world of billionaire philanthropists instantly, hundreds of millions of women worldwide would lose access to contraception. And in the US, only the rich would have access to legal abortion.” (, September 17, 2019).

As I applaud philanthropists for their dedication to solving the world’s problems, I can’t but feel helpless and discouraged. Depending on the serendipity for a billionaire to discover a problem and try to solve it does not seem to be a sustainable and duplicable solution. It also made me think about how individuals like us can help change the world. We don’t have billions of dollars but it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about making a difference. Is the best route to change the world 1) become a billionaire, and 2) change the world? Again, not sustainable and doable for everyone. Then I think about Greta.

Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN leaders had drawn many hateful comments from “adults”. Many people have problems with her attitude and a lot has to do with her age (let’s admit it, younger people get discriminated). Now after learning about the world sanitation state and the fact that Bill Gates seems to be the only one who cares makes me want to scream with Greta to these world leaders. In a recent Facebook post, she had told us in her own words about her model of changing the world. She was inspired by Parkland students to do a school strike in 2018. Without any other support (even her parents did not support her), she just did what she planned to do: sitting out every Friday to protest about climate change. I honestly didn’t think she wanted to be famous or indeed make any huge difference. She did what she set out to do and her action resonated with people of the same age.

Greta’s story reminded me of the movie Forest Gump when Forest went running and people started to follow and expected words of wisdom from him. But in fact, he just felt like running. It also reminded me of the Buddhism wisdom of “change yourself change the world.” Now that’s something I could grasp and do.

Would Greta achieve the same amount of impact twenty or even ten years ago? I doubt it. Technology, internet, and social media all play a role to snowball the impact from Greta’s one-person rally in 2018 to the march of millions in 2019. This means that maybe we don’t need to wait for a few billionaires to come to rescue the world. We all have the power to influence and leverage influence and make a change. With technologies changing our way of life at an unprecedentedly fast pace, the future is becoming less and less predictable. Companies and practices are becoming obsolete every day. Experiences become obsolete. This is a difficult change for older people and I believe the answer is to look to future generations and learn from them instead of dismissing what they had to say.

At the end of the day, be it “a few saviors model” or “change yourself change the world model”, both Bill and Greta started their journeys to change the world with empathy, curiosity, and two questions “What can I do to change?” and “How do I turn thinking into doing?” Maybe the essence of philanthropy has changed to be less about wealth but more to do our responsibility to the environment and each other. Let’s stop being obsessed with billionaire philanthropists and teenage activists and start asking the questions.

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