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.
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.