Gates Foundation opens new windows

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Stepping up its initiatives to better public health, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - one of the largest private ones in the world - hopes to work with the government in areas of financial inclusion, urban sanitation and sustainable agriculture. The foundation, with an annual outlay of $4 billion (about Rs 25,000 crore), has strengthened its focus on these areas over the past couple of years.

The foundation is looking to work closely with government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Direct Benefit Transfer and try to address gaps in these areas. It is working on sustainable solutions for urban waste disposal. "Even in some of the biggest urban centres, a third of human waste is discharged untreated, severely contaminating land, water and air," Hari Menon, director, poverty and poverty alleviation, who looks after the foundation's non-health initiatives, said. He added the buzz around SBM has brought more attention to these issues.

"India's social problems - from health to sanitation to financial empowerment - are inextricably interconnected," Nachiket Mor, director, India office, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wrote in an annual letter of the foundation titled "What if answers to our most crucial questions lie with us" adding, "The solutions are interlinked too; and this is why we believe so strongly that working together with the people and the Government of India."

Releasing the letter at a select media interaction in the capital, Mor, who joined the foundation in March, maintained that the primary focus of the foundation would continue to be public health, where he saw greater problems in the private sector than in the government run clinics.

At present, about 70 per cent of the foundation's work pertains to this area and the mix is not likely to change dramatically. Mor did not share India-specific numbers for the foundation, but said it was one of its most significant countries.

Gates foundation began working in India in 2003, with primary focus on Avahan, an HIV prevention programme, but has since expanded to other health issues such as family planning, tuberculosis and malnutrition.

The foundation's work in non-health areas has expanded especially after it received significant contributions from billionaire investor Warren Buffett a while ago. It is working with state governments of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha on development of city wide models combining access to toilets with local solutions for treatment and safe disposal of human waste.

On financial inclusion, the foundation is betting on digital payment solutions. The recent announcements about the launch off India Post's payment bank could help the last mile connectivity issues, Menon added.

The foundation's efforts in the financial services area could gain from Mor's considerable experience. He comes with a three decade experience in the financial sector and is presently on the board of the Reserve Bank of India and heads the central bank's advisory committee on payment banks. "But, that's not the hat I am wearing now," Mor said.

On the doubts around the government's efforts in schemes such as Jan-Dhan, Mor said, "In India, things take time, We are too quick to declare victory and too quick to declare failure."

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