Why Bill and Melinda’s Annual Letter is both exciting and disappointing

January 23, 2015 6 By Duncan Green

Judging by his latest annual letter, if you could bottle and sell Bill Gates’ optimism, you’d probably make even more money than he has Bill and Melinda Gatesfrom software. In what they call a ‘big bet’ (actually, more like a prediction), the letter sets out Bill and Melinda’s personal version of some post-MDG goals for 2030 (Charles Kenny sees it as an implicit criticism of the official UN process on that):

‘We think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking.

These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology—ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets—and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.’

That progress includes:

  • ‘Child deaths will go down by half
  • Cutting the number of children who die before age 5 in half again
  • Reducing the number of women who die in childbirth by two thirds
  • Wiping polio and three other diseases off the face of the earth
  • Finding the secret to the destruction of malaria
  • Forcing HIV to a tipping point
  • Farming: Africa will be able to feed itself
  • Banking: Mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives
  • Education: Better software will revolutionize learning’

 

The final section of the letter is a ‘Call for Global Citizens’ who will ‘take a few minutes once in a while to learn about the lives of people who are worse off than you are. You’re willing to act on your compassion, whether it’s raising awareness, volunteering your time, or giving a little money.’

That’s all great, and particularly on issues such as climate change, we need that global citizens’ movement asap. We also need it to rein in the arms trade, predatory corporates and tax evasion, which aren’t mentioned (although at Davos this week Bill urged his rich colleagues to pay their taxes).

But even so, I read the letter with a growing sense of uneasiness. The Gates Foundation is full of incredibly smart, dedicated people, who must know from bitter experience that getting all this progress entails both understanding and working with the messy realities of power, systems, politics and institutions – the stuff that I write about ad nauseam on this blog. So does it matter that the Letter completely ignores them?Gates learning softwareInstead what it offers is a technocrats’ charter – a parallel universe in which new tech will solve ill health, climate change, illiteracy and just about everything else – this is a ‘thinking and working politically’ – free zone. Two reasons why that matters (there are many more).

Firstly, development is above all about domestic politics and the interaction between citizens and states. If the Ministry of Health is only interested  in looking after one part of the population, or its senior civil servants are all running private businesses out of their offices, no amount of new tech is going to help much – only politics and the struggle for accountability and better government can do that. Even in terms of resources, aid is becoming less important compared to domestic taxation and mineral revenues, neither of which get a mention (nor does inequality). Instead, the letter feels like a throwback to a ‘Make Poverty History’ frame that depicts aid, technological progress and philanthropy as the main drivers of progress. They aren’t.

Second, conflict is a massive barrier to all these potential gains, but doesn’t get a mention (maybe it’s too messy, no tech fixes?). The only reference to DRC laments its lack of paved roads, but passes over the chronic violence that has claimed millions of lives.

Is it OK to airbrush out the messiness of real developing countries, turning them into an imaginary peaceful, low income recipient of technological progress, run by well-intentioned philosopher kings (preferably elected)? I had an enjoyable argument with an Oxfam colleague on this who responded ‘why does the Foundation need to ‘do development differently’ if they are achieving successful results in addressing issues of poverty, illness, food security, technological innovation, and increased citizen voice?’ I think it matters because encouraging an apolitical mindset in the aid community has already proven to be a really bad idea, setting them up to fail and secondly, because giving the public only half the story (or less) is setting the aid business up for a bigger backlash when things go wrong (as they will, at some point).

And as poverty increasingly becomes concentrated in fragile and conflict states, the gulf between the Letter’s can-do optimism and an increasingly fragmented reality is only going to grow. The Gates Foundation people know all this, but the letter doesn’t acknowledge any of it.

Does that matter? Isn’t this a letter that is supposed to galvanize public opinion (primarily in the North) and show what is possible? Given Ebola, Syria etc, we can certainly do with a Charles Kenny style reminder that overall, things are indeed Getting Better. Maybe so, but my gut feeling is that airbrushing to this extent does the cause a disservice, and is bound to come back and haunt us one day. I think Bill and Melinda should level with people. What do you think?

Here’s Bill and Melinda in cartoon versions summarizing the letter