I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated
out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing
about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease
in developing countries.
You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about the world's inequities than the classes that came before. In your years here, I hope you've had a chance to think about how - in this age of accelerating technology - we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them.
Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a week
and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause - and you wanted to spend
that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in saving and
improving lives. Where would you spend it?
During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million kids each year - none of them in the United States.
We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were
dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover
and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar,
there were interventions that could save lives that just weren't being
If you believe that every life has equal value, it's revolting to learn
that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to
ourselves: "This can't be true. But if it is true, it deserves to
be the priority of our giving."
The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the
lives of these children, and governments did not subsidise it. So the children
died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market
and no voice in the system.
We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a
more creative capitalism - if we can stretch the reach of market forces
so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving
people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can press governments
around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the
values of the people who pay the taxes.