Bill Gates visited the UAE this week, and, as appears to be the custom, brought along the Microsoft chequebook to announce a round of investment in the region. As part of the trip, Microsoft pledged $235 million to K12 education (covering five to eighteen year olds) in the region, through its Partners in Learning initiative, along with almost too many joint projects to count, covering areas as diverse as data security, government best practice and graduate training.
In a break from the past Gates was willing to speak about both Microsoft's CSR efforts and his own philanthropy - until now a clear line was drawn between the two. But with a new career in the charities sector just around the corner, it seems that he's happy to boost the new venture just as much as the old.
Gates' and Microsoft's approach was noticeably different to that of John Chambers and Cisco. Cisco's investment is very much aimed at the IT industry - boosting IT skills, enhancing regional R&D and encouraging government to adopt IT. The Bill Gates' approach, targeting education in schools and community projects, addresses some of the fundamental problems of the region much more directly.
Kito De Boer, managing director of McKinsey & Co, Middle East, who shared the Dubai platform with Microsoft, made a very valid point - if the Gulf countries are going to continue to develop and harness the phenomenal growth that they have enjoyed, then they need to start addressing the issue of educational standards for K12 and below, which at present are woefully lacking. Otherwise, he warned, the Gulf risked having the GDP of Germany with the educational standards of Ghana.
Just before his trip to the UAE, Gates revealed his vision of ‘creative capitalism' at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and it figured heavily in both the speeches he made in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Creative capitalism is his idea that ‘capitalism' per se has only tended to be of most benefit for the richest nations and people - creative capitalism is a challenge to those that hold the wealth, to find ways of working that will help all people and tackle development issues.
As the world's richest man, Gates is in a comfortable position to push this message, but his words are backed up by actions and by the resources of Microsoft. In a region that is becoming ever more wealthy, it is scandalous that education has been neglected for so long; and when more and more companies like Microsoft and Cisco are offering technology, best practices, collaboration and resources to drive educational development; it is shameful that the authorities are not doing more to work together to create world class opportunities for all of their people, and not just for flagship projects in the most high profile cities.
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