Google’s Project Loon, which kicked off in June, was created with the intention of providing Internet service to developing countries by way of balloons at 12 miles in altitude, which could beam down wireless Internet. The balloons would be able to serve an area twice the size of New York City, and 30 have been launched so far, so that’s a lot of Internet. It sounds like a good deal, but the project has one big critic – the richest man on the planet.
Bill Gates has a philanthropic record as close to unimpeachable as you can get (not saying perfect – far from it, and no one is). Well, he’s not necessarily a fan of Project Loon. I imagine he’s not exactly opposed to it, either – Gates just thinks there are more important problems to solve first. Gates, who is known for his work fighting malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, remarked, in perhaps a little too caustic of a manner, ‘When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,’ when asked about Google’s project.
Gates’ response could come off to some as unnecessarily critical of a project that, by all rights, isn’t bad in any sense. But, his critique does bring up an interesting point that has been a big source of debate in the world of aid and development work in poorer countries. Google, like many other practicing philanthropy, is offering something they have some expertise in. The question is, is it helpful at this juncture? Gates’ philanthropy has often been about cooperation and communication with the regions and people he and his foundation are trying to help. Gates and his foundation do the groundwork to understand what the most pressing needs are for the world’s poor, and then he attacks those problems aggressively, cooperating with experts and organizations that are best positioned to help.
Development is a very complex field, and there’s no magic bullet – no ‘right way’ to do things. But, a good rule of thumb is to recognize that, for development on a community-wide or nationwide scale to take place, the basic needs to be squared away first. It’s awfully difficult to think about starting a business when you’re ailing from disease, or struggling to find food or clean water. Google’s Project Loon, again, isn’t bad, but it’s symbolic of the other side of developmental aid – throwing a potential solution at a problem without actually having an idea of how it will help in a practical sense, or how it can meet those basic needs. Not to say that Google’s heart isn’t in the right place here, but it’s indicative of aid that values the giver’s intentions over the recipients’ actual needs.
You can also check out this interview between Gates and Bloomberg Business Week, where Gates talks more about his philanthropy and some of the other social projects going on today. Through it all, it seems like Gates has, maybe, a very unique outlook that would explain a lot – unceasing pessimism paired with unbridled drive. I think that might be what they call cautious optimism.