Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter - Debunking Myths

Each year the nonprofit community eagerly awaits the annual Bill and Melinda Gates letter.  This isn’t the foundation’s annual report - that is released separately later in the year.  This is a personal letter by the Gates.  I always find it fascinating and write about it.  And what a letter it is this year.
This year this blog will focus on Philanthropy and there is no better place to start than a discussion about the annual Gates’ Letter.

The theme for this year’s letter is  "3 MYTHS THAT BLOCK PROGRESS FOR THE POOR."  Bill writes about the first two and Melinda writes about the third myth.  Bill starts out with a very positive read on the progress that has been made on an overall basis and makes the bottom line assessment that the world is a better place and significant progress has been made.  But holding back continued investment in this success are these myths:  the poor will remain poor, that efforts to help them are wasted, and that saving lives will only make things worse.

Bill and Melinda methodically look at each of these myths and debunk them.

Many 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.  Bill points out countries such as China, Brazil and Botswanna as examples.  Bill specifically takes on statistics for Africa reporting that more countries are turning toward strong sustained development, and that 7 of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past five years are in Africa.  He notes the major strides in health and education but also the disparity amongst the poorest and better off African countries and rural and urban areas.  The bottom line: Poor countries are not doomed to stay poor.  Bill Gates is so confident about this that he made this prediction which is getting a lot of media attention:  By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.
Bill Gates is no Pollyanna and he admits that there will still be poor people in countries that are becoming self sufficient and countries with serious political problems may not share in this overall better life for all that he envisions. 

Myth #2: FOREIGN AID IS A BIG WASTE by Bill Gates
Bill says that the stories of what happens with foreign aid are distorted.  He reports that what he and Melinda have seen is people living longer, getting healthier, and escaping poverty – partly due to this aid.  Bill describes aid as a “fantastic investment” that lays the groundwork for long term economic progress.  He notes that the Gates Foundation has a reputation for a hard-nosed focus on results, and they partner with government aid programs and does a lot to help these programs be more efficient and measure their progress.

Bill says that foreign aid is much less than people think it is off the top of their head.  At $30 Billion it is about 1% of the US budget. This does not include military aid.  The country with the highest rate of giving, Norway, gives 3%.  After a bunch more statistics – Bill’s letters are always full of facts and figures – he comes to the most profound conclusion – “healthy children do more than merely survive. They go to school and eventually work, and over time they make their countries more self-sufficient.  This is why I say aid is such a bargain.”

Corruption and Aid Dependence
Bill addresses the role of corruption but dismisses it as much less than people envision.  He also notes that some much touted corruption is found through audits and thwarted that way.

Another argument from critics is that aid holds back normal economic development, keeping countries dependent on generosity.  Bill discusses the impact of different kinds of aid and the value of research and implementing new tools that lead to economic development.  He says that the money spent today on a Green Revolution for Africa is helping countries grow more food, making them less dependent as well. That’s why the Gates Foundation spends over a third of its grants on developing new tools.

The bottom line for Bill: Health aid is a phenomenal investment. He says: “Let’s put this achievement in historical perspective. A baby born in 1960 had an 18% chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, the odds are less than 5%. In 2035, they will be 1.6%. I can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in human welfare that would even come close.

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

Well  - he has me convinced. But does all this saving lives lead to overpopulation?  Onto Myth #3 written by Melinda.

Melinda  writes passionately about this topic saying, “We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.  The statistics bear this out as the correlation between child death and birth rates is strong.  Melinda writes about the role of education and health for women leading to better lives including having less children as they learn about birth control and feel more secure about the survival of their children. “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. We will build a better future for everyone by giving people the freedom and the power to build a better future for themselves and their families.”

Bill and Melinda have taken the time to share their philosophy, their world view and the facts of all the investment made to make the world a better place.  What do they hope you will do with this information? 
·       Tell political leaders that you care about saving lives and that you support foreign aid.
·       You should know that organizations working in health and development offer a phenomenal return on your money.
·       The next time someone claims that saving children causes overpopulation,  explain the facts. You can help bring about a new global belief that every life has equal value.

This infographic from the report captures a lot of information:

This is just a summary.  You should read the whole letter – Click here and enjoy the letter, graphs, videos and beautiful pictures that Bill and Melinda have shared with us.