On 21 January, Bill and Melinda Gates published their seventh annual letter. In it they set out their ‘big bet for the future’: ‘The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.’
Details of the big bet are spelt out under four headings:
- Child deaths will go down, and more diseases will be wiped out.
- Africa will be able to feed itself.
- Mobile banking will help the poor transform their lives.
- Better software will revolutionize learning.
The letter ends with a ‘call for global citizens’. These are ‘people who care about helping those in the world’s poorest places improve their lives’ and you can sign to become a more active one at globalcitizen.org.
Responses to Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letters have always tended to be positive, but inevitably they give rise to questions. One comes from Chris Blattman of Columbia University. In an article called ‘Grading the 2015 Bill and Melinda Gates letter on poverty alleviation’, he argues that ‘All the things we want from development – an end to extreme poverty and suffering – is synonymous with political stability, capable states, industry and financial systems. I can’t see how a country gets from $1,000 to $5,000 a person (let alone $12,000) without them.’
Yet, he goes on, ‘The Gates’s priorities — disease eradication, online education, mobile banking and agricultural inputs — simply don’t attack these fundamental elements of development. They take them for granted. Which means they apply to the countries already bounding ahead. … let’s not claim that a few new technologies can make unprecedented and fundamental changes in poverty in 15 years. They’ll make little, useful changes. That makes for a humbler, less exciting letter. But I think it’s the right one to write.’
He ends on a gloomy note: ‘By 2030, probably half the world’s poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected places. These are the places that will be hard, maybe impossible, to penetrate with vaccines, the Internet, agricultural extension and online courses. They certainly won’t be industrializing.’ And with the admission that the political problem is one we really don’t know how to deal with.