Gates letter challenges three development ‘myths’

Bill Gates_Flickr_Gates Foundation
Copyright: Flickr/Gates Foundation

Speed read

  • The Gates Foundation letter says there will be almost no poor nations by 2035
  • Smart aid makes recipient countries less, not more, reliant on future support
  • And saving children’s lives ends up reducing long-term population size

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Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have used the sixth annual letter from their foundation to tackle what they see as development myths undermining efforts to save lives and cut poverty.

The founders of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, take on three such myths: that poor countries are doomed to stay poor, that foreign aid is a big waste of money and that saving lives leads to overpopulation.

In his part of the letter, Bill Gates shows economic improvements that have lifted many countries out of poverty, predicting that “by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world”.

Countries, he says, will “benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.”

He also laments the misguided notion that foreign aid does not work.

“I hope we can stop discussing whether aid works, and spend more time talking about how it can work better.”

Bill Gates

For example, he takes issue with the view that aid hinders economic development and keeps countries dependent on outside generosity.

“This argument makes several mistakes. First, it lumps different kinds of aid together.

It doesn’t differentiate aid that is sent directly to governments from funding that is used for research into new tools like vaccines and seeds,” Bill Gates writes.

“The money America spent in the 1960s to develop more productive crops made Asian and Latin American countries less dependent on us, not more. The money we spend today on a Green Revolution for Africa is helping countries grow more food, making them less dependent as well. Aid is a crucial funding source for these ‘global public goods’ that are key for health and economic growth. That’s why our foundation spends over a third of our grants on developing new tools.”
He also says that small-scale corruption within the aid system does not mean such support should stop.

“More and more, technology will help in the fight against corruption. The Internet is making it easier for citizens to know what their government should be delivering — like how much money their health clinic should get — so they can hold officials accountable. As public knowledge goes up, corruption goes down, and more money goes where it’s supposed to,” he says.

“Above all, I hope we can stop discussing whether aid works, and spend more time talking about how it can work better,” he writes. “This is especially important as you move from upstream research on global public goods into the downstream effort of delivering these innovations. Are the recipient countries in charge of figuring out where health clinics should be built and training the workers? Are donors helping local teams build up the expertise they need to put the Western experts out of business? Are the best performers sharing the lessons they’ve learned so other countries can follow suit? This has been a big area of learning for the foundation.”

And in her section of the letter Melinda Gates says that saving lives through aid and development leads to smaller populations — not, as the myth would have it, to overpopulation.

Access to education and contraceptives for women, and food, vaccines and healthcare for children, lead to more lives saved, but also to fewer children being born per woman, she writes.

“Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to secure a sustainable world,” she writes.

Link to 2014 annual letter

See below for a video of Bill Gates explaining that foreign aid works:

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net's Global Edition