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Poverty will end by 2035, says Gates

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5 2014 10:00 a.m. MST

A homeless Pakistani woman cooks food in a poverty area set up along railway tracks in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.

Shakil Adil, Associated Press

The poor are getting richer, says Bill Gates, and there’s no reason to believe we can’t end poverty – soon. “By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world,” Gates said in an annual Gates Foundation letter.

He and his wife are struck by how many people seem to believe that the world is getting worse, he writes. “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been,” writes Gates, citing improvements in health, life expectancy and dramatic turnarounds in cities such as Mexico City and Nairobi.

Traditionally the annual letter focuses on the activities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the largest charitable foundation in the world– but this time the co-chairman and chairwoman seek to debunk “three myths” that are blocking work for the poor: the notion that poor countries are doomed to stay that way, that foreign aid is a waste, and that saving lives will only lead to overpopulation.

To buy into the myths is not just incorrect, he says, it blocks progress for the poor.

The Poor Get Richer

The first and most ingrained myth, writes Gates, is the notion that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

“The easiest way to respond to the myth that poor countries are doomed to stay poor is to point to one fact: They haven’t stayed poor. Many – though by no means all – of the countries we used to call poor now have thriving economies. And the percentage of very poor people has dropped by more than half since 1990.”

In 1987, Mexico City had almost no running water, and people had to trek by bike or foot to fill up jugs. Today, the city is transformed. There are skyscrapers, modern bridges, and new roads. “When I visit there now I think, “Wow, most people here are middle-class. What a miracle,” writes Gates.

But what about Africa? Isn’t it suffering from incurable poverty?

Wrong, says Gates. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa. Parts of Africa still suffer from extreme poverty, but cities like Nairobi have thriving international markets. In Ethiopia income is only $800 a year, but in Botswana it’s $12,000. “You should look skeptically at anyone who treats an entire continent as an undifferentiated mass of poverty and disease,” he writes.

Megan Ah Mu, development director for nonprofit Choice Humanitarian, has worked in Kenya, Angola, and Uganda, and agrees that people have mistaken ideas about Africa. “People are surprised to learn that there are elevators in Africa. There are new malls, shopping, great food,” she says. There are areas of poverty, she says, but also areas of great progress.

Africa is not hopelessly behind in the fight against AIDS, either, according to ONE Foundation, the advocacy campaign against extreme poverty co-founded by Bono, which released its own list of poverty myths. In sub-Saharan Africa, 16 nations are at or beyond the beginning of the end of AIDS, according to a ONE report.

Stacey Shaw, a social work researcher at Columbia University who has done AIDS research in Africa for several years, asserts that progress takes time and money. "Numbers are going down, so something is working," says Shaw. "When you are there it’s extremely hopeful and positive and daunting and hard. It's not as simple as saying 'Here’s $100 million, now everything is better.'" It takes time for education to take effect, and for attitudes to change, especially about something as personal and stigmatized as AIDS, she says.

The Case for Aid

Aid is not a waste, argues Gates, and he worries that myths about aid give political leaders an excuse to cut back on it.

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