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Why I High-Fived a Colleague in Paris

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Bill Gates Selfie (www.thegatesnotes.com) Bill Gates Selfie (www.thegatesnotes.com)

I don’t generally do a lot of high-fives. But as I climbed into the car after meeting with President Hollande in Paris this week, I held up my hand and slapped palms with one of my fellow passengers.

We were both celebrating and feeling relieved. Just a few hours before, it had seemed unlikely that the meeting would happen at all. The president had just announced a major reorganization of his Cabinet, and I didn’t think he would have time to talk with me about French foreign aid, the subject of our meeting. And even if he did have time, I thought the president might tell me that there was no way his government could maintain its aid commitments in the years ahead. Although France has an amazing track record in this area (it’s the second-largest contributor to the Global Fund, for example), the federal budget is under a lot of pressure. They are facing cuts on the order of 50 billion euros over the next three years.

So I definitely appreciated it when the president decided to keep our meeting even with everything else he had going on. And I was quite encouraged when he told me, without being asked, that he’s going to do his best to preserve France’s commitments. Of course, neither of us is under any illusion about how tough the budget situation is. But it was great to hear the president talk about the impact of France’s support and pledge to try to maintain it.

Paris was the second of three stops on this trip. I had been to Stockholm the day before and would be taking a quick trip to London the next day. In each place I wanted to encourage political leaders and voters to maintain their commitments to foreign aid, even in tough economic times. I wanted to remind people of all the lives they are saving.

This is an important year for Sweden, with elections for the national government and the European Parliament coming up later this year. I was pleased to hear from leaders in the major parties that they want the country to keep playing a leading role in global health and development, no matter how the election turns out. I had an especially productive meeting with Finance Minister Anders Borg, who oversees Sweden’s aid-related programs. He’s so interested in the work that he travels to Africa to learn and see the impact first-hand. We discussed some innovative ideas about how Sweden could take a leading role in funding infrastructure projects, like roads, in Africa. Improving its infrastructure is one of the keys to the continent’s growth in the coming decades, so I hope donors step up with creative funding ideas.

In Stockholm I also had a great time at an event hosted by one of my favorite global health experts, Hans Rosling, and three of his colleagues. Hans is unmatched in his ability to get you excited about the topic while also teaching you something. You can watch the event here. While I was there we shot a video about vaccination rates that involves me pouring orange juice out of a pitcher. (It will make sense when you see it, I promise.)

In London I got to visit Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and thank him and Prime Minister David Cameron for committing to spend 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP on foreign aid. The U.K. reached that milestone last year, and they’ve said they want to maintain this level. The impact is phenomenal. For example the U.K. supports the GAVI Alliance, which provides vaccines that prevent millions of children’s deaths each year.

I also met with the CEOs of major pharmaceutical companies. We’ve gotten together every year for the past five to talk about the work they’re doing on diseases that affect the poor; I especially want to hear about the obstacles they’re running into and how we can work together to overcome them. This week we marked exciting progress on much faster tests and treatments for sleeping sickness (a.k.a. human African trypanosomiasis), which threatens millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa—during epidemics, it has been known to overtake HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death in some communities. These advances make it possible for the first time to imagine eliminating this terrible disease. In fact I helped announce $240 million in new funding to treat neglected tropical diseases, including sleeping sickness.

I’ll close by sharing this selfie I took in Paris with a few Youth Ambassadors from the ONE Campaign. They’re part of a program that ONE started in Germany and is now taking to other countries to help keep foreign aid on the agenda. It’s always energizing to meet young people who are so enthusiastic about saving lives. Even on a trip where I heard a lot of a good news, they left me feeling especially optimistic.

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