Q&A: Inside the Next Phase of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

FE_Giving Pledge_Q&A_Mark Suzman_NEW
Mark Suzman in South Africa Mark last February during a trip in his first official capacity as CEO. Gates Archives/Jonathan Torgovni

Mark Suzman was appointed CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on February 1. Among other things, he wrote for the Financial Times of London and worked at the UN. Suzman talked with Newsweek about the foundation's two-decade anniversary, its future, The Giving Pledge and COVID-19, which broke into a full-blown crisis right after our first interview with him. Edited excerpts:

Within weeks of your appointment, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. How has it impacted your transition?
We've had to find the right balance between what the pandemic has made urgent and what remains important for the long term. For example, one of my first priorities was to establish a new executive-level leadership position overseeing our work on gender equality, and we're actively recruiting for that role now. That said, our response to the coronavirus outbreak is consuming vast amounts of time and brainpower—not to mention financial resources. What's been reassuring is that all the building blocks we have put in place over the last 20 years—from our rigorous evidence-based approach, to our scientific expertise, to our relationships grounded in political neutrality—mean that today we have the capability and credibility necessary to be useful in the global response. Take the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator that we set up with Wellcome and Mastercard. It is an example of how not just our financial resources are useful, but also our technical experience and convening power. I'm proud of what we've been able to contribute so far and confident that on the long, arduous journey ahead, there's even more we can—and will—do.

How do you persuade U.S. citizens and government officials to take a global view of COVID-19 given that we tend to be so focused at home?
It's an entirely natural instinct to worry most about those people and issues closest to home, but if this pandemic has taught us nothing else it's that viruses don't care about national borders. With a global crisis like this, only a coordinated global response will be effective. That means governments, private industry, philanthropic organizations and people everywhere working together. Obviously, there's a tremendous amount to be done, but I'm confident that the international community will rise to the challenge.

COVID-19 is obviously the elephant in the room right now. And something you all will be focusing on. But what else would you'd like to tackle?
First thing is how do I build on what we've done really well. Something like the drive to reduce preventable child mortality, focusing on infectious disease control, vaccine access, etcetera. The world has basically halved preventable child mortality in the period since the foundation was founded, and the foundation's played a key catalytic role, definitely not alone but with a range of partners, in helping drive that. How do we make sure that we actually build on that? It actually gets tougher to halve it again, but I think we can halve it again in the next decade.

A second is definitely around the whole issue of gender equality and how gender issues are fundamental, particularly to our global health and development linkages. And then maybe third is really the challenges of how you work with getting change at scale. One of the big challenges of philanthropy writ large, and actually aid and development, is money almost by itself can often buy you short-term impact and success. But if you really want stuff to be sustainable, embedded in the communities, you need something more.

You have a couple of famously hands-on and strong-minded bosses. Where do you think that you and they will have the most discussions?
Yeah, well, they're definitely strong-minded and deeply involved in the work. But they're also very open-minded. What they're looking for always is what's our highest impact intervention, what's our comparative advantage and leverage digging into a particular issue? Is it about the HIV/AIDS battle, is it about the gender issues, is it about access to postsecondary education in the US? The other element of the discussion with them is always, well, what's the most effective use of having their voice and their presence to drive some particular outcome...how and where do you use their voice and their presence most effectively, because they're among the few people who can engage directly at a head-of-state level on issues like that.

Are there things you wish that the foundation had done differently, any do-overs?
I think we were slower as a foundation than we perhaps should have been or could have been in terms of understanding how important it is to be able to engage directly with partners on the ground in the places where we work, I think we had an assumption in our early days that if we as a philanthropy could focus on the creation of big public goods, that somehow the system, whatever it is, would make sure those public goods then reached people who needed them. And the more we grew, the more we realized that just doesn't work or to the extent it works, it works incredibly unevenly.

And so, it's really in the last decade only that we've set up a stronger array of offices, which we now have in India and China, in three countries in Africa, in Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia. Among our partners we have offices in Berlin and London, we have representatives in places like Paris and Tokyo. It makes us much more effective when you're able to have real-time conversations on the ground, in the same time zone.

This is also the 10th anniversary of The Giving Pledge. How do you and the Gateses and Warren Buffett see The Giving Pledge in terms of success?
One of the reasons I didn't list it in this—you might think this is a sort of over-careful distinction but for me it's an important one—is The Giving Pledge is not owned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Giving Pledge is something that was set up by Bill and Melinda Gates personally and Warren Buffett.

The Gates Foundation helped support it through the annual convening, through learning sessions, through other bits. But it is not a foundation initiative per se, it's very much a personal initiative by Bill and Melinda and Warren coming out of their personal views and the actions they've taken about why they see philanthropy as so important to them. That obviously has resonated with a certain proportion of the world's very, very wealthy, both in the United States and increasingly globally, and the fact that there are now over 200 people signed up to the pledge is something I think they are very proud of—and I'm proud of the role that the foundation helps supporting that.