Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are world’s top global thinkers

At least, that’s what Foreign Policy magazine says with its “100 Top Global Thinkers 2010” ranking hot off the shelf.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are ranked number one, primarily for their work as philanthropists with a business mindset:

As the world has lost confidence in the ability of countries and institutions like the United Nations to solve global problems, Gates offers an attractive alternative vision: that the business community’s relentless drive to innovate can help with our biggest challenges, from malaria to food scarcity to illiteracy.

Hmm, I’m not sure even Gates would agree with the implication there, that a business-minded approach is an alternative to UN and government action.

To begin with, the assets of the Gates Foundation are nothing compared to the U.S. government, let alone other wealthy nations.

Both Bill and Melinda Gates, in fact, speak out constantly in support of greater government involvement and investment in foreign assistance. And while the Gateses may sometimes challenge the inertia (if not the occasional absurdity) of the UN, I’ve never heard them suggest it’s an institution we could do without.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Gates takes an “aid critic” to task for simplistically contending that foreign aid hasn’t worked and what’s needed to improve things in Africa is just more trade and business growth. Gates writes in his response to author Matt Ridley’s new book “The Rational Optimist” on humanity and prosperity:

In discussing Africa, Mr. Ridley relies on critics who say, essentially, “Aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work.” He cites studies, for instance, that show a lack of short-term economic benefit from aid, but he ignores the fact that health improvements, driven by aid, have been a major factor in slowing population growth, which has proven, in turn, to be critical to long-term economic growth.

Gates goes on to say:

Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the “top-down” approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs.

In addition to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the list includes a lot of the standard politicians and political appointees (Ron Paul? A global thinker?). But it also lists people like physician-activist Paul Farmer, Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, head of CARE USA Helene Gayle, George Soros and the amazing Elizabeth Warren (who has the small job of making Wall Street a little more honest).

And beyond the rankings of the top 100 global thinkers, FP asked them to answer some specific questions about some of the world’s biggest problems. Nearly 9 out of 10 said the Iraq War was a bad idea …

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.