NEW YORK (AP) — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $200 million to help save the lives of mothers and children during childbirth, as the largest American philanthropic donor throws its weight behind the issue during the nonprofit’s annual Goalkeepers conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Melinda French Gates, who says the issue is personal to her, smiled broadly as she introduced herself not just as the co-founder and co-chair of the foundation but as “Nona,” or grandmother, gesturing to her oldest daughter, Jennifer, who was seated in the audience in New York on Wednesday.
The foundation pledged $100 million each to health products manufacturer Unitaid, and UNFPA, the U.N. agency for reproductive health, to fund access to health care and contraceptive supplies and information in low- and middle-income countries. The Gates Foundation has been a major supporter of Unitaid, donating $50 million in each 2012 and 2017, according to the foundation’s grant database.
Founded in 2017, the Goalkeepers initiative is how the foundation tracks progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, which U.N. member countries agreed in 2015 to meet by 2030. The goals set lofty targets to reduce poverty, improve health and education and protect the environment, though progress toward achieving them has fallen significantly off track, especially following the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
In an effort to reach an audience outside of government officials, experts and policy circles, the foundation hosted an award ceremony in New York Tuesday evening and recruited social media influencers to cover it, said Blessing Omakwu, who leads the Goalkeepers initiative.
“My goal is they go back and take these things that we said in a very policy way and make it accessible to their followings and say, ‘Look, this matters. You should care about maternal health,’” she said.
French Gates recognized former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter with a lifetime achievement award, pointing in part Carter’s long commitment to the elimination of guinea worm disease. Singer Bono also received a special award for his work advocating over many years for access to health care in developing countries and for the role he played in launching the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.
The program to combat HIV/AIDS was created by President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress two decades ago and is credited with saving 25 million lives. The fate of the program, set to expire at the end of September, is uncertain because of a demand from Republican lawmakers to bar nongovernmental organizations that used any funding from providing or promoting abortion services.
Bill Gates was absent from the award ceremony Tuesday because he had been invited to attend an event with President Joe Biden, French Gates said on stage. The two announced their divorce in 2021 but committed to continuing to work together at the foundation.
Speaking of the future of PEPFAR on Wednesday, Bill Gates said the idea the program would not continue is quite scary, given that it continues to provide life saving medications for millions of people around the world.
“It’s a shame that, at least temporarily, this is caught up in sort of a, ‘Does the U.S. reach out to the world and help the world?’ — some of those controversies. I think we will overcome that because the U.S. has a lot to be proud on this one,” Gates said.
Gates also made the case for a suite of interventions to prevent the deaths of children in the year after they are born, which he said was one of the first priorities of the foundation. He spoke with emotion about a visit he made to a South African clinic, where doctors asked the mother of a child who had died that day if she would allow them to try to determine more specifically the cause of the baby’s death as a part of a larger study. Cumulatively, the results of that study, which the foundation funded, has advanced knowledge about the causes of infant mortality.
The foundation also recognized the leaders of projects they said exemplified the aims of the development goals, including Eden Tadesse from Ethiopia, who designed a platform to provide job opportunities to refugees, and Aidan Reilly, Ben Collier, and James Kanoff, who started a project that delivers vegetables and produce that otherwise would be thrown out to food banks in the U.S.
Award winner Ashu Martha Agbornyenty, a midwife from Cameroon, called the foundation’s recognition of her work a victory for those who study to become midwives and for the health of women in her country.
“Everyone around me was like, ‘There’s nothing for midwifery. Midwifery is just a layman’s profession. There’s no future for midwifery.’ But me being here in New York today, it’s victory,” she said standing on a red carpet.
The Gates Foundation was not alone in announcing new commitments to support progress toward the development goals. On Tuesday, the IKEA Foundation pledged $20 million to help workers and communities who may lose jobs in the transition to renewal energy sources in Vietnam, South Africa and Indonesia. The Rockefeller Foundation announced last week that it will focus 75% of its resources over five years on what it calls climate solutions in energy, health, agriculture and finance, committing $1 billion in granted funds. And the Clinton Global Initiative announced that gender equity would now be a pillar of its work.
Last year, the Gates Foundation put the spotlight on hunger and promoted its support for crops engineered to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests, which have been criticized by farming groups and researchers who say that conflicts with worldwide efforts to protect the environment.
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