Bill Gates, Matt Damon and Bono Walk into a Room

January 25, 2019 By Joan Steiger

Each year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) draws leaders and luminaries from every corner of the globe and all spheres of influence, including government, business, civil society, academia and media, to Davos, Switzerland. Many high-profile presenters were in attendance at this week’s events, speaking on the theme of Globalization 4.0—both a nod to the increasingly digital, interconnected world and a call for heightened global cooperation in the face of rising nationalism.

But several prominent heads of state—including U.S. President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and French President Emmanuel Macron—were notably missing, underscoring how national crises are taking precedence over global engagement. President Trump canceled plans for a U.S. delegation to attend, citing the partial government shutdown and ongoing efforts to reopen the government.

Over the years, WEF has become a springboard to discuss pressing humanitarian issues. And while some major delegations remained absent, Bill Gates, Bono, Matt Damon, and other major players made the trip to the Alps to discuss everything from poverty and human rights to food security and clean water access.

In an interview with CNBC’s Becky Quick, Bill Gates commended the “great successes in global health” while reminding his audience about “the need to maintain that commitment.” Over the last two decades, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $10 billion into three organizations—Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative—to reduce poverty and disease through advancements in vaccines, drug treatments, and other health innovations.

These investments, Gates said, have created a 20-to-1 return in economic benefits, yielding $200 billion over the last 20 years, and have saved countless lives. For example, since Gavi was founded less than 20 years ago, over 690 million children have received vaccines, saving over 10 million lives in low- and middle-income countries.

“Helping young children live, get the right nutrition, contribute to their countries—that has a payback that goes beyond any typical financial return,” said Gates.

Later in the day, U2 singer and activist Bono reminded the international community that the fight against HIV is not over. A staggering 7,000 women contract HIV/AIDS each week. However, as countries shift their focus inward to deal with national crises, we are in real danger of losing major gains against HIV.

“We could lose this thing. We were winning,” said Bono. “We have been somewhat put on the back foot by the understandable concern in northern economies that we have problems in our own cities. If there are people on the streets in our own cities, why should we care about what’s going on over there? The answer is that what is going on ‘over there’ affects us. If Africa loses, Europe can’t win.”

Bono then called for countries to renew their funding commitments to global health initiatives, including AIDS, and to join the fight against extreme poverty in Africa in order to meet the UN goal of ending global poverty by 2030. For Bono, this includes, in part, keeping the “wild beast” of capitalism in check and utilizing the tenants of free enterprise to drive down global poverty rates.

“Capitalism has taken more people out of poverty than any other ‘ism,’” he said. “But it is a wild beast that, if not tamed, can chew up a lot of people along the way.”

Matt Damon joined the conversation on global access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities—issues he’s trying to tackle as co-founder of non-profit Water.org.

“[Water] underlines everything,” Damon said. “All these issues of extreme poverty are affected by it. It really touches everything. You can’t solve any of these problems we’re talking about today — gender equality, climate change, all of these things — water touches all of them.”

Since 2009, Damon said Water.org has exceeded his “wildest dreams and it’s scaling really fast,” reaching over 16 million people across the world with clean water and sanitation solutions—by 2023, they hope to have reached 60 million people.

And when it comes to accessing safe water, Damon believes the issue is “completely nonpartisan and shouldn’t be polarizing.” In fact, he welcomes the opportunity to speak with anyone in the Trump Administration on advancing this global issue, as real solutions exist to prevent the “unnecessary and preventable deaths” of millions of children each year.

As WEF wraps up in Davos, the words of these luminaries remain: while the international community has made great strides against global health concerns and other humanitarian issues, there is still a lot of work to be done. And in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, the United States and other global leaders have the ability to affect real change by investing in a more prosperous, stable world and reaching across international borders to lift up communities that need us the most.