Surveys show that most people radically overestimate how much their governments spend on aid, according to ONE Foundation. The U.S. allocates less than one percent of its budget to foreign assistance programs.
Does aid work? Ah Mu acknowledges that it is not a perfect process and that aid dependence, greedy institutions, and corrupt officials give aid a bad name. There is sometimes a double-standard for philanthropy that doesn’t apply to other sectors, she says.
“There is corruption in politics all the time, but we’re not saying we’re done with politics. For some reason any time there is a report of corruption in aid, we want to put the kibosh on foreign aid,” says Ah Mu.
Nonprofits don’t have a worse record of abuse than corporations or politics, she says, but they have higher accountability. “With donations you are buying a feeling or a change” she says, "and it’s harder to see that your money wasn’t wasted.”
Likewise, Gates suggests that small-scale corruption should be thought of as an inefficiency that’s hard to eliminate completely – just like eliminating waste from a business or government program is difficult. He calls foreign aid a “phenomenal investment” in improving and saving lives – public health victories such as measles vaccinations, eradicating polio in India, and controlling tuberculosis in China have all been accomplished with foreign aid funding.
“Suppose small-scale corruption amounts to a 2 percent tax on the cost of saving a life,” writes Gates. “We should try to reduce that. But if we can’t, should we stop trying to save lives?”
A Bright Future
Melinda Gates wrote a section of the letter addressing the myth that saving lives worldwide will lead to overpopulation. She points to countries like Brazil that have declining birth rates as they become more developed.
“I have the same gut reaction [about overpopulation] but it is a surface and ignorant point of view,” says Chris Johnson, program director for Choice Humanitarian, who has spent years in communities in Mexico and Guatemala. He points to the U.S. and Europe as examples: “The truth is that the more we prosper, the less children we tend to have.” The best way to control population growth is to educate women, he says.
“When more children survive, parents have smaller families,” says Melinda Gates, who notes that the poorest countries tend to have the largest populations. “The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but rather when they are able to improve their lives."
In an interview with the Huffington Post this week, Bill Gates expanded on the letter and its optimistic tone. He noted that traditional headlines associated with poor countries – that they're plagued by natural disasters, political instability and corruption – have prevented people from understanding how much progress has been made.
"When I look at how many fewer children are dying than 30 years ago, and how many people are living longer and healthier lives, I get quite optimistic about the future,” said Gates.
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