Will $100 Million Solve World's Problems?

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Larry Brilliant has been given $100 million to help solve the world's problems. He left his job as head of Google's philanthropy division to head up the Skoll Urgent Threat Fund with a mandate to focus on climate change, water scarcity, pandemics and more. Brilliant talks with Renee Montagne about whether the world's problems can be solved with just $100 million.


Housing is but one crisis. We recently spoke to a man who plans to solve other crises. Larry Brilliant now heads Google.org. That's the company's charitable arm. He's an epidemiologist who's tackled some of the world's worst diseases, and he'll soon oversee a new philanthropy called the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund. Dr. Brilliant has $100 million to start with. His mission: solving the world's five most pressing problems.

Dr. LARRY BRILLIANT (President, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund): The five areas will be pandemics - unfortunately, a little too timely - global warming, the Middle East, water and nuclear proliferation.

MONTAGNE: Where do you even start deciding where to put the money in any one of these areas?

Dr. BRILLIANT: Well, I was fortunate enough to be part of the smallpox eradication program. We succeeded in eradicating smallpox. And when you work on a global program like that, you really need to play all the keys on the keyboard: policy, grants, changing public will and perception. I think that's probably the most important, the advocacy part of this. And all five of these urgent threats have in common, they have to be prevented.

You can't wait until there's a nuclear weapon exploded on American territory or some emerging communicable diseases that becomes pandemic. These have to be prevented. And that requires a conversation like the one that you and I are having now. This is our chance and our moment in history to tackle the most daunting problems. If we don't start now, when will we start?

MONTAGNE: Well, let's take an example, the Middle East conflict - two immovable sides. Where do you start?

Dr. BRILLIANT: I'll Just give you one example. The Skoll Foundation took the movie "Gandhi" and translated it into Arabic, went to Gaza in the West Bank, and they showed the movie "Gandhi" to Palestinians who could see and hear it in Arabic. And they had never known about a peaceful resistance, nonviolent resistance, nonviolent revolution before. And it's changed the way of thinking and it's changed the conversation. Because what Gandhi did in India was to create a movement that was long lasting, that built peace and that created victory.

MONTAGNE: Now, having had a hand in eliminating smallpox and polio, is there anything you view as unsolvable?

Dr. BRILLIANT: Of course, you're right. If you're a mountain climber and you climb Mount Everest, you have a confidence that you can climb mountains. But having watched smallpox be eradicated, it does embolden me. It does give me a feeling that all the great threats that we face are solvable, and I do have a confidence that humanity is better than we've shown ourselves to be the last many years and requires a nationwide conversation about these urgent threats. So I think there's a lot of conversation yet to be had, and a lot of new tools that can be employed to take that conversation up one more level.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. BRILLIANT: Thank you very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Larry Brilliant will soon leave his current job as vice president and chief philanthropic evangelist at google.org and will become president of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund.

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