2020 Lifetime Achievement: Bill and Melinda Gates

photo of bill and melinda gates

The foundation that has donated more than $50 billion in grants to improve global health and reduce inequities launched with a single article. In January 1997, The New York Times published the story, “For Third World, Water Is Still a Deadly Drink,” which described in grim detail how diarrheal illnesses from drinking contaminated water were killing more than 3 million people worldwide each year, most of them children.

“We saw this article and I remember saying to Bill, ‘This is unbelievable. People are still dying of diarrhea.’ How could that be?” Melinda Gates recalls in the Netflix documentary series, Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates. “We had made the commitment that the vast resources from Microsoft would go back to society. But what this article did for us is really got us thinking about global health.”

Today, the core of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s mission is to tackle extreme poverty, reduce health inequalities, and improve access to education, both abroad and in the United States. “We focus on these issues in particular because we think they are the biggest barriers that prevent people from making the most of their lives,” the couple wrote on the Foundation’s website.

The Gates Foundation provides the funding and tools needed to extend and improve the lives of some of the poorest people around the globe. One way it achieves its goals is by investing in the development and delivery of vaccines to prevent illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia. While routine and easily treatable in the developed world, these diseases kill an estimated 1.5 million children in developing nations each year.

The foundation also provides countries with the tools and innovations they need to eradicate deadly diseases like malaria, AIDS, and polio. Since the early 2000s, malaria cases have dropped by more than 40% and deaths have been reduced by more than 60% worldwide, in part thanks to its investments in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

And in the U.S., they are working to address the issues of maternal mortality, violence and incarceration, lack of education, and social inequality. Their goal is to ensure that every child has an opportunity to succeed.

Moving forward, the foundation has set a lofty goal: to prevent more than 11 million deaths, 3.9 million disabilities, and 264 million illnesses by 2020. Despite the huge challenges that remain, the philanthropic couple says they’re both optimists.

“We believe that by doing these things -- focusing on a few big goals and working with our partners on innovative solutions -- we can help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life,” they write.