Bill Gates Explains How World Is Getting More Awesome and Less Poor

If only Windows was improving the way the world was improving, amirite?Credit: OnInnovation / Foter.com / CC BY-ND“By almost any measure, the world is a better than it has ever been,” begins the 2014 annual letter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, written by Bill Gates.

“People are living longer, healthier lives,” he continues. “Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse.”

So begins a very lengthy debunking of what Gates sees as three myths first-world citizens tend to have about third-world countries. His letter can be read here. There's a pdf version here.

His three myths:

Poor countries are doomed to stay poor

Poverty levels are down just about everywhere, not just major Western countries. Gates goes so far as to say we need to rethink what we mean when we’re talking about “developing” countries:

The global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn in my lifetime. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the United States level was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there, as is Gabon. And that no-man’s-land between rich and poor countries has been filled in by China, India, Brazil, and others. Since 1960, China’s real income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and the small country of Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a thirty-fold increase. There is a class of nations in the middle that barely existed 50 years ago, and it includes more than half of the world’s population.

Click for bigger imageBill & Melinda Gates Foundation

That seems to be a far cry from claims in certain quarters that, due to trade and globalization, poor countries are little more than targets for strip mining (figurative and literal) for rich corporations. Gates goes so far as to predict that by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries in the world, at least not in the terms that we think of as poor. He argues, “Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.”

Foreign aid is a big waste

This may be a tougher sell for libertarians who are so attuned to recognizing the corruption of government power in nations both large and small. Gates believes that fears of corruption or waste are overstated based on anecdotes rather than data and also a result of a well-established problem of folks who believe Western governments spend more on foreign aid than they actually do. Americans tend to believe the U.S. spends a quarter of its budget on foreign aid. It’s actually less than a percent. Gates calculates those numbers as adding up to $30 per American per year and does believe health and education aid have made a major difference in reducing poverty and increasing life spans in poor countries. Gates also provides a couple of important caveats:

I should acknowledge up front that no program is perfect, and there are ways that aid can be made more effective. And aid is only one of the tools for fighting poverty and disease: Wealthy countries also need to make policy changes, like opening their markets and cutting agricultural subsidies, and poor countries need to spend more on health and development for their own people.

I suspect the criticism of how poor countries spend their money tends to be what sticks in the craw of Westerners when it comes to foreign aid. That’s where the corruption and waste seeps in, where dictators and puffed up princes hoard the nation’s riches, leaving their own citizenry to starve.

Gates has done the math and calculates that it has cost $5,000 to save a child’s life in a poor country, based on dividing the amount of donated money that has been spent on health-related aid by the number of children such aid has saved since 1980.

Gates also addresses the shibboleth that foreign aid merely creates countries that depend on us to prop them up rather than actually helping them develop:

Here is a quick list of former major recipients that have grown so much that they receive hardly any aid today: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia. South Korea received enormous amounts of aid after the Korean War, and is now a net donor. China is also a net aid donor and funds a lot of science to help developing countries. India receives 0.09 percent of its GDP in aid, down from 1 percent in 1991.

Saving lives leads to overpopulation

I was half-tempted to declare this myth to actually be a straw man, but Gates says his foundation gets comments like this all the time. People believe that these poor countries will continue to grow at the same population rate as they do when they’re no longer poor, despite all evidence that birth rates drop in wealthier countries. And as Gates points out, higher mortality rates do nothing to halt population growth anyway:

Take Afghanistan, where child mortality—the number of children who die before turning five years old—is very high. Afghan women have an average of 6.2 children. As a result, even though more than 10 percent of Afghan children don’t survive, the country’s population is projected to grow from 30 million today to 55 million by 2050. Clearly, high death rates don’t prevent population growth (not to mention the fact that Afghanistan is nobody’s idea of a model for a prosperous future).

I cannot possibly make a better case against overpopulation panic than Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, so read what he had to say back in July here. For that matter, I also highly recommend reading Bailey’s magazine piece from last summer providing his own view on how a lot of the “bad news” we hear about the world is wrong.

Stepping away from developing countries, or whatever we end up calling them, Bill Gates also commented about the minimum wage on Morning Joe on MSNBC, warning that raising it too much encourages automation and labor substitution, eliminating jobs entirely, and pointed out that only a small percentage of people who make the minimum wage (around 11 percent) actually live in households classified as poor. Hilariously, the tag underneath Gates reads “The Wealth Divide – The Rich Get Richer, Global Income Inequality Rises.” Way to miss the point, guys.

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  • ||

    The welfare industry needs poor to stay poor. After all, if there's no poor, there's no need for their very existence.

  • Zeb||

    There will always be the poor. Once a country becomes developed enough that there is practically no real poverty, they will just define poverty as the bottom quintile and then you have a nice permanent class of the poor to play with.

  • sarcasmic||

    Yep.

  • Edwin||

    dude, come on. I mean, yeah, for government. But not Bill Gates, this is a private organization, and Bill Gates is a true-blooded nerd; I don't see him as doing anything other than positive stuff

  • ||

    I mean, yeah, for government. But not Bill Gates, this is a private organization

    He's advocating for government aid though

  • ruby0015||

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  • Snark Plissken||

    Crushing the alt-text.

  • waffles||

    It's amazing how minimum wage in the United States puts you on the far right of that curve.

  • ||

    That's what I was thinking too. Us poor 99 percenters.

  • Zeb||

    SO what the hell do you say to the people who are always insisting that everything is getting worse? I mean the people who genuinely believe it, not the politicians who use it to increase their control.

  • lap83||

    People see what they want to see. Personally, I see the Tyranny-Liberty cycle everywhere. So I don't think that things are in a perpetual state of improvement because the more prosperous the society the more people who spend all of their time thinking and none of it working. I don't think you can have prosperity without progressive blowhards whose ideas would reverse all of the actual progress made by people who aren't allergic to work. Ironic but true.

  • Zeb||

    No, I wouldn't argue that everything is improving all the time. But failing to see the amazing progress made among the very poorest people seems like a huge blind spot.
    I think some people are just too attached to the narrative that corporations and imperialists are ruining everything and raping the third world. And others can't bring themselves to acknowledge the improvements because of guilt about being comfy Americans or something.

  • ||

    "You're dead wrong. Educate yourself. Here are some websites/books to get you on the right track..." Adjust politeness of message according to audience.

  • Dweebston||

    "FUCK YOU AND FUCK YOUR TOXIC BELIEFS, SHITHEEL."

  • Heedless||

    I foresee great things in PR for you.

  • Dweebston||

    HR, more likely.

  • Spiny Norman||

    And don't forget to grab the person by the lapels to emphasize your point.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I tried to listen to an interview Gates did yesterday. All I heard was gibberish.

  • creech||

    "Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the United States level was in 1960."

    C'mon Bill, you probably know better than to compare apples to oranges. According to World Bank, the U.S. per capita income is currently almost 5 times that of Turkey. Turkey today is where the U.S. was in 1960 but only if you don't divide both countries' per capita by the roughly 7 times inflation in the U.S. dollar since 1960.

  • Brandon||

    That is adjusted for inflation.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Here is a quick list of former major recipients that have grown so much that they receive hardly any aid today: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia.

    Could there be some common factor as to why these countries made it out of poverty?

    Botswana (27), Morocco (103), Brazil (114), Mexico (55), Chile (7), Costa Rica (53), Peru (47), Thailand (72), Mauritius (8), Singapore (2), and Malaysia (37). Only Morocco and Brazil are ranked "mostly unfree"

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Not sure about Morocco, but Brazil has certainly prospered thanks to its decision to open up its markets to foreign investors and as a result of petroleum finds off its coast.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The Heritage ranks do have issues, but they're a decent ballpark.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    I'm not disputing the ranking, just pointing out that trajectory has a lot to do with where Brazil is at right now.

    It's similar to China: sure it's unfree, but compared to where it was it's a hell of a lot freer today.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Good point.

  • Steve G||

    Oh good, perhaps we can take a pause on the whole inequality narrative for awhile

  • Marc F Cheney||

    On the contrary. There's now a bigger gap, in absolute terms, betweeen the poorest X% and the richest X%. That's all they cared about in the first place.

  • AlmightyJB||

    It's funny how people can reconcile their whole money isn't what's really important in life to their outrage that anyone might have more stuff then them.

  • Marty Rheaume||

    I've noticed that too. Liberals think money is much more important than it actually is. They think libertarians are greedy (like Scrooge McDuck) and obsessed with money, but libertarians are actually greedy (like everybody else) and obsessed with Freedom.

  • Steve G||

    Hilariously, the tag underneath Gates reads “The Wealth Divide – The Rich Get Richer, Global Income Inequality Rises.” Way to miss the point, guys.

    I recently provided some data to a news outlet and was unsurprised to see the final product which had a title that didn't match the meat of the article that was built around the data I provided. Convinced me they write these articles starting with the title first.

  • Zeb||

    Headlines are not generally written by the authors. And who has time to actually read the article you are supposed to be editing?

  • Steve G||

    Yeah, completely unenlightened in the journalism biz here, but I figured as much or the author had sold a certain POV to his editor at the start and didn't want to stray.

  • Acosmist||

    dat whig view

  • Invisible Handjob||

    This is exactly the kind of data I try to emphasize with liberal friends when I make "let the market do it" arguments. How Gates is probably right and we may actually see an end to extreme poverty in our live times and it's exactly because of globalization and economic growth that libertarians argue for. Gates links to a video by statistician Hans Rosling, whose GapMinder site is absolutely terrific for the stats that Gates refers to.

    As lap says, people see what they want to see. Just look at some of the comments to this story being reported by sites like Yahoo and it's utterly depressing. You know immediately 99.9% didn't bother to even glance at the actual report (Yahoo doesn't bother to link to it). They see "Bill Gates says..." and they start incoherently shouting "Fuck him, this Robber Baron has impoverished millions".

    So many of libertarian arguments are economically based. I have found it really difficult communicating with the ill-informed. And believe me, I try to be really patient, watch my own logical fallacies and try to take as charitable view of their thoughts as I can stomach. But when so many of them have no conception of the difference between business revenue and profit, it's really hard to make some subtle point about the failures of Keynesianism and the virtues of Hayekian spontaneous order.

  • JW||

    Hilariously, the tag underneath Gates reads “The Wealth Divide – The Rich Get Richer, Global Income Inequality Rises.” Way to miss the point, guys.

    Oh, they got the point, but it didn't fit the narrative.

  • widget||

    Bill Gates also commented about the minimum wage on Morning Joe on MSNBC, warning that raising it too much encourages automation and labor substitution,...

    I am an automation engineer. I don't aim to destroy labor, but that's what happens when I do my job.

    For worse or better, a lot of automation software runs on Bill's Windows OS. The SOHO business revolution of the 1990s ran on Windows, eliminating the need for office personnel. What's he [or Melinda] saying here?

  • Marc F Cheney||

    Gates also addresses the shibboleth that foreign aid merely creates countries that depend on us to prop them up rather than actually helping them develop...

    But he addressed no such thing. The fact that some now-successful countries received foreign aid doesn't prove that foreign aid was helpful. It doesn't even prove that foreign aid wasn't a hindrance. All it shows is that foreign aid doesn't necessarily prevent a country from developing, so long as some other factors are in place.

  • Shocked||

    Progs have the most compelling argument in three words "far too many..."

  • TerminusEst||

    I want to take issue with the notion that libertarians have a problem with foreign aid. I don't think the problem is with foreign aid, per se, but with a central government taxing citizens and shipping off money to nations based on their whims, not on the desires of the taxpayers. Foreign aid is good, but should be the individuals who decide where to donate.

  • ImFeklhr||

    Some of my distaste for foreign aid is that a large percentage of it is not humanitarian in nature. From what I understand a lot of our aid is really just giving them "Credit" which they can only use to buy weapons and military equipment from American arms dealers. And of course tax payers pay for that. So we are forced to stomach furthering the military industrial complex under the guise of giving aid.

  • ||

    It is important to understand that soon the paradigm of scarcity economics will be largely replaced with abundance economics as technology enables abandonment of a Malthusian mentality. As one example, soon clean energy will be too cheap to meter, as LENR emerges in onto the market place in the next couple of years. As is every technology like LENR, people generally can't believe we can go from expensive and scarce, to very cheap and super abundant. Because of this widespread skepticism, I'll support my one specific example with a primer I've been circulating...although this is again, just one abundance technology among many that will be emerging in the next couple of decades.

    "LENR has the demonstrated ability to produce excess amounts of energy, cleanly, without hazardous ionizing radiation, without producing nasty waste.” - Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center

    "Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry." --Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

    By the way, here is a survey of some of the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization: http://www.cleantechblog.com/b.....-cataly...

    For those who still aren't convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence: http://coldfusionnow.org/the-evidence-for-lenr/

  • ||

    http://energycatalyzer3.com/ne.....or-darpa-2

    This is a great example of a company that is in the middle of the LENR research and development. The following link is of an exciting demonstration January 28 by a New Jersey company (BlackLight Power - 60 million dollars capitalized) that has a revolutionary LENR product which the above link (SRI) has already validated. Since cheap and abundant energy is the current main bottleneck to our economy, you can reasonably predict stellar economic growth after the emergence of LENR (and again, that is just one example of what I call "abundant technologies" emerging soon).

    http://www.e-catworld.com/2014.....ower-demo/

  • ||

    (and again, that is just one example of what I call "abundant technologies" emerging soon)

    Perpetual motion machines and alchemy are soon to follow!

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Regardless of whether the ultra cheap/abundant emerging energy technologies actually work, most Progs and other self styled population "activists" do not want cheap/abundant energy. They would rather keep us around as a bunch of subsistence farmers so that we can live in a pastoral paradise.

  • ibcbet||

    Once a country becomes developed enough that there is practically no real poverty, they will just define poverty as the bottom quintile and then you have a nice permanent class of the poor to play with.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Matt Ridley was onto this stuff in 2010. Glad to see it's getting more traction.

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