Gates' timely donation of $26m to Unicef

WHAT DO you do if you are the world's richest man and your government is attacking you in court, depicting you as a bully and a menace? You do something very, very nice. Something involving children would probably work - such as making an absolutely enormous donation to Unicef.

For the cynical of mind, this was the sly logic behind yesterday's announcement that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is giving $26m (about pounds 16.3m) to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, to fight maternal and neonatal tetanus in the Third World - a condition that claimed 300,000 lives last year.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Washington issued an initial "finding- of-fact" ruling in the Justice Department's 1997 anti-trust case against Microsoft, saying that the software company had abused its dominant position in the personal computer industry to stifle its competitors.

On Friday, the same judge appointed a mediator to explore reaching a settlement with Mr Gates. The case, in other words, is at a crucial juncture. Some might equally have smelt a rat in Mr Gates' appearance on 7 November - just two days after the court's pronouncement - at a fund-raising dinner for Gary Locke, the Democratic governor of his native state, Washington. Not only did Mr Gates attend the party-political event, he was its host.

Truthfully, it seems unlikely that the judge in whose hands the fate of Microsoft rests, Thomas Penfield Jackson, will be swayed by any of this - or that Mr Gates would expect him to be.

And there is something else: the Unicef donation, though large, is hardly the only Gates giveaway of recent times.

His donations to various causes now come almost as frequently as week follows week. Earlier this month, he gave $4m to help to put computers in schools in the poorest areas of Britain. It is now common for Mr Gates to be compared with the great American benefactors of a century ago, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

"This guy has come out of the box in the space of 18 months and made some big and good decisions," commented Peter Karoff, president of the Philanthropic Initiative, a body advising individuals on giving. "The big thing about Gates is not the dollars ... it is the unbelievable speed as to his decision-making".

Most of the Gates grants are drawn from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was created by the merger of three previously existing Gates family foundations last August.

It is now the richest charitable foundation in the United States and the second richest in the world, after the Wellcome Trust of London.

The focus of the Gates foundation is providing health and education for children both in America and worldwide. In September this year, Mr Gates pledged $1bn - his largest single commitment - to provide grants to 20,000 disadvantaged and ethnic minority children across America to receive higher education. The money will be distributed in parcels of $50m over the next 12 years.

That promise was instantly compared to the $1bn that media tycoon Ted Turner gave to the United Nations two years ago. At the time, Mr Turner was speaking out against his "fellow rich" - including Mr Gates - accusing them of failing to honour the tradition of philanthropy among America's super rich. Some have since argued that it was Mr Turner's goading that persuaded Bill Gates to concentrate on giving.

Mr Gates, a Harvard drop-out, has an estimated worth today of more than $90bn. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an asset base of just over $17bn.

The foundation has become thanks rich thanks to regular top-ups of Microsoft stock from Mr Gates. In August, he gave more than $6bn of his stock to the foundation. He and his wife surrendered $3.3bn to it last February and $5bn in June.

Yesterday's donation was welcomed by Charles Lyons, the president of the US Committee of Unicef.

He said: "Today's $26m give from Bill and Melinda Gates, combined with the will and resources of our other supporters, both private and public, can save the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of new-borns and mothers around the globe."

THIS YEAR'S $1.2 BN HANDOUT

$50m to the Malaria Vaccine Initiative for the development of a new vaccine

$100m for the Gates Children's Vaccine Programme, to help immunisations in developing countries

$50m to the Motherhood Mortality Reduction to improve maternal survival rates

$25m to the International Aids Vaccine Initiative for the development of a vaccine against HIV

$1bn over 20 years to fund scholarships for disadvantaged children in the United States

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