This week, Bill and Melinda Gates published their annual letter on poverty and aid, “Three Myths that Block Progress for the Poor.”
The three myths?
- Poor countries are doomed to stay poor,
- Foreign aid is a big waste, and
- Saving lives leads to overpopulation.
It’s long (6,000+ words), but worth a read. For those of you who won’t read it but still want to be able to respond intelligently when it comes up at the water cooler (you know it will), here’s a quick summary with some thoughts in response.
1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
Bill takes on Myth #1 with enthusiasm, calling out countries like Mexico, Kenya, and China as examples of rapid economic progress. In terms of where we’re headed, he goes so far as to say:
By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer.
My verdict? Bill is on the right track. In his recent book Getting Better, World Bank Economist Charles Kenny calls for “realistic optimism,” based on numerous examples of surprising economic growth across the globe, plus the fact that quality of life, gender equality, and civil rights have made even bigger gains. My good friends at 58: like to point out that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty dropped by half—from 52 to 26%—between 1981 and 2010 (more on this in the video “The Poor will NOT always be with us“).
2. Foreign aid is a big waste
Bill goes on to Myth #2 with the same upbeat tone (supported by a video by Bill Nye the Science Guy, which steals the show). He tackles the pessimism of White Man’s Burden and Dead Aid (albeit without naming names), painting a relatively rosy picture of foreign aid. For instance:
A baby born in 1960 had an 18 percent chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, the odds are less than 5 percent. In 2035, they will be 1.6 percent. I can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in human welfare that would even come close.
My verdict? It’s not quite that simple. I obviously believe that aid can be effective if it’s done right, but it’s very tricky trying to attribute these kind of wholesale economic or health improvements to the collective activities of aid agencies. Bill’s bottom line is that “aid works, and that our focus should be on getting it to work better.” My response is “yes, AND it’s complicated.” In his new book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam points out the increasing complexity that agencies have to navigate in order to achieve their goals… not to mention learning and improving as they go.
Incidentally, Bill did make a couple of other really good points in this section:
- Corruption doesn’t sabotage aid nearly as much as we think it does, and
- Most Americans dramatically overestimate how many dollars of the US Federal Budget is allocated to foreign aid (most people guess around 25%; the reality is <1%).
3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation
Melinda takes over for Bill on the last myth, and dives right in:
Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to secure a sustainable world.
My verdict? Well, yeah. I’m surprised to see this “myth” on the list, since it has been pretty clearly demonstrated that countries experiencing a drop in mortality soon see fertility plummet too. It seems like the Gates are spending a lot of time and effort here countering a few under-informed blog commenters and internet trolls. If you do need a cheat sheet on this one, Hans Rosling’s video will soon get you up to speed.
Bottom line… I’m glad the Gates are shining a light on poverty issues (and putting their money where their mouths are). There is nothing so damaging to the cause of eradicating poverty and health issues than the myth that we can’t do anything to combat them; societies need to be having informed dialogue on these issues, and high-profile contributions like this one are a big help.
What do you think about all this? Are there other poverty myths you think should be on the list?