Bill Gates talks metrics and spills the beans on his annual letter

Bill Gates Malaria ForumOn Wednesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will officially release Bill’s annual letter.

You can sign up here to get it yourself, or just read the Wall Street Journal op-ed published last week in which he pretty much says the same thing:

“In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

No surprise here. But there’s measurement and then there is evaluation. They aren’t always the same thing.

Bill Gates loves evaluations and measuring outcomes.

His idea boils down to “setting clear goals, choosing an approach, measuring results, and then using those measurements to continually refine our approach.” It is more or less what he has been doing with the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation continues to be one of the leaders in investing in evaluation-based programming. They establish an area of interest, invite people to apply with innovative ideas, put money into things of interest, require strong data and measurements and then they fund what works or can be improved.

In poor countries, we still need better ways to measure the effectiveness of the many government workers providing health services. They are the crucial link bringing tools such as vaccines and education to the people who need them most. How well trained are they? Are they showing up to work? How can measurement enable them to perform their jobs better?

…In agriculture, creating a global productivity target would help countries focus on a key but neglected area: the efficiency and output of hundreds of millions of small farmers who live in poverty. It would go a long way toward reducing poverty if we had public scorecards showing how developing-country governments, donors and others are helping those farmers.

But Gates leaves a few critical questions unanswered.

  • Who should do the evaluations?
  • What types of evaluations are best?
  • How do you ensure that evaluations are not skewed to a pre-determined outcome?
  • How do you simultaneously encourage innovation throughout the process while trying to capture measurable data?
  • How do you then take these measurements and apply them to other projects?
  • How will you use the data to affect public policy and opinion?

These are not trivial questions. We’ll see, when Gates’ letter is published in full, if he addresses them.

Gates mentions American education. It is one of the battlegrounds between measurement advocates and opponents. One side says that there needs to be a way to quantify and understand what is working. The other side says that such measurements cannot capture all the growth in a student and can lead to education inputs that are driven by maximizing the measured outputs.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • Mordatar

    Maybe I’m reading too much on what you are saying, but when you say there are “critical questions unanswered”, it seems to imply that, without answering those questions, he’d better not even begin his approach. (Much in the sense that the Star Wars’ Death Star had a critical design problem:if a small fighter gets to its core, it can blow the whole thing up, so the Empire shouldn’t even had built it).

    If that’s what you are implying, I disagree. All of those questions, which are certainly important, can be answered while you are pursuing this novel approach. We shouldn’t let the fact that we do not have the answer to all our problems stop us from addressing those problems with the partial answers that we do have.

  • Amy Pennington

    I’m a Research
    Analyst with the Strategy, Measurement and Evaluation team at the Gates
    Foundation. I cannot agree more that the questions you raise are critical. As a
    matter of fact, we are currently working on a foundation-wide evaluation policy
    to address them. We have just finished the first draft of the policy and are
    refining it internally before sharing with partners and grantees and eliciting
    their feedback. You can expect to see the policy later this year. Thank you for
    raising such important questions!

  • Any evaluation of the grants allocated to promote tobacco control?

  • Thanks for your work!