The eye-opening experience that turned Bill Gates into a philanthropist

According to Gates, fighting poverty requires a focus on basic needs

Bill Gates, perhaps the world's most visible philanthropist, revealed that visiting a clinic in Africa twenty years ago forced him to realize that the world's poor didn't need his computers—they needed vaccines.

Gates told the story to PBS's Charlie Rose, as part of a broader conversation around his approach to giving, Business Insider reports.

Gates has been critical of some tech titans who suggest donating advanced technologies and Internet access to the developing world. Instead, Gates told Rose that he feels philanthropy should first seek to address the basic needs of those in poverty.

"Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that's great. I don't," Gates said in a separate interview last year. However, Gates told Rose that it was not until he saw the dynamics of poverty firsthand that he felt this way.

A life-changing experience

In 1997, Gates traveled to Africa to give a demonstration to a rural village of how a computer could be used to help solve local problems such as where to find food and health care. When he arrived, there was no electricity to power the computer. He recalls that a special generator was borrowed to facilitate the presentation, but that the generator would be removed when Gates left, leaving the community disconnected once more.

Ebola in the U.S. is worrying. But in West Africa, the situation is downright dire.

The experience was "pretty eye-opening for me," says Gates. "So the idea that there was a hierarchy of needs ... While still believing in digital empowerment, that was not at the top of the list" he observed.

Gates also visited a decrepit tuberculosis clinic on the continent, which further emboldened him to make changes that would help "thousands and millions" escape poverty. His wife Melinda Gates recalled Bill phoning her from Africa, upset that patients who were forced to seek care at the clinic were facing a de facto "death sentence."

Those experiences helped drive the couple to create the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been giving millions to anti-poverty projects for 15 years (Bort, Business Insider, 1/21).

The takeaway: Bill Gates argues that addressing global poverty means focusing on peoples basic needs.

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