Gates warns Obama at risk of falling short on global health pledge

Bill Gates, global philanthropist and the world’s richest man, warned that President Barack Obama is in danger of falling short on his pledge to double U.S. foreign aid to alleviate suffering around the globe.

“In order to get there we’d have to have large increases in the out years; if you were just to track linearly this is a little below what you would need on a linear track to achieve that,” Gates said. “We’re hopeful they’ll still make that commitment but it would require bigger increases further out.”

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Gates commented on Obama’s foreign aid pledge in a meeting Wednesday afternoon with a handful of reporters.

Obama asked for $9.6 billion for global health in his fiscal 2011 budget request. That is up from $8.8 billion enacted last year and the $7.4 billion request in the president’s 2010 budget to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Gates said the “modest” rise represented a 3 percent increase over last year’s spending when supplemental funding bills are taken into account. Without counting supplemental spending bills, he said, the president’s proposal amounted to an 11.8 percent increase.

Gates acknowledged even this would be difficult to pass through Congress, where concern over the federal deficit has become one of the biggest political issues.

“We wish there were more resources for these things but even the modest increase is tough to get,” Gates said.

Gates said if Congress did not approve the president’s request, it would essentially sink Obama’s pledge to double foreign aid to promote health and development around the world.

“He, during the campaign, contributed to this as an important cause,” said Gates, who noted that 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) made the same commitment. “We thought that was a great thing and now we’ll see over the next few years.

“This budget is an increase, so that’s good but it’s not enough of an increase to be on a linear track,” Gates said.

Specifically, Gates would like more funding for global vaccine distribution and for the global health fund.

“The vaccine number could be increased to $500 million and that money could be spent extremely well,” he said.

He said another $1 billion should be added to the global fund.

Obama sought $1 billion for the global fund in his 2011 budget request.

Gates said he met with Obama in March of last year to discuss global health programs. He said lawmakers must join together in a bipartisan effort during tough economic times to fund global health or the president’s vision would be nearly impossible to achieve.

“If we don’t get at least the modest increase we’re talking about here it’s a huge blow,” he said, adding that it would send a strong signal affecting future funding increases for global health. “It makes it almost impossible to get there — not impossible, but almost — if you’re not on a path of increase.”

Gates, however, said global health is an issue he believes can still win bipartisan backing, despite stark political divisions over healthcare reform, the economy, financial regulatory reform and climate-change legislation.

Gates testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday to call for federal funding increases for global vaccine distribution and the global health fund. Gates and former President Bill Clinton testified about the effectiveness of global health initiatives.

“There’s sort of a five-, six-year goal to have a substantial increase in these global health things that were talked about during the campaign and have been reiterated,” said Gates. “We want to make sure that people know the facts so they can decide if that makes sense. We think if they know the facts it will.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged to spend $10 billion over a decade to fight diseases such as AIDS, but Gates wants to spread the message that private philanthropy funds only a small part of what is needed for global health.

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