Policy

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

Mythbusting naysayers about third-world development

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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.

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Bill & 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 mortalityâ€"the number of children who die before turning five years oldâ€"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 â€" The Rich Get Richer, Global Income Inequality Rises.” Way to miss the point, guys.