Humanosphere’s annual letter to Bill and Melinda Gates

Today, Bill Gates, with assistance from Melinda, issued his annual letter and the theme for 2014 was myth-busting. We will explore those myths a bit.

As was reported first in the Wall Street Journal, which for some reason is annually privileged to reveal the contents of Bill’s letter in advance of other media, the Gateses this year set out to debunk three ideas they believe threaten progress:

  1. Poor nations are doomed to stay poor.
  2. Foreign aid is a big waste.
  3. Saving lives leads to over-population.

Humanosphere always enjoys reading, and reporting on, Bill’s yearly ruminations – if for no other reason than because the Gates Foundation has come to drive much of the narrative around the many efforts aimed at reducing poverty, diseases of poverty and inequity. The message this year?

Things are getting better. Stop being so negative.

“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been,” is the opening line and theme of the 2014 annual letter. Most people don’t seem to realize this, the billionaire humanitarians say at the outset, largely because of ‘what they see in the news.’

So, is the news media wrong and Bill Gates right about the state of the world? It should be noted that the Gates Foundation funds a lot of media coverage on the state of the world and has done so for more than a decade (with multiple grants over the years to NPR, Guardian, BBC and others) so one question they might ponder next year is whether their media grants have moved the negativity needle or not.

Last year, Bill Gates ruminated in his annual letter for 2013 on the importance of data, of setting measurable, quantifiable goals such as eradicating polio or some of the more precise of the anti-poverty targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals, which have guided the international community for nearly 15 years.

This year, as most media have ‘positively’ reported it, Bill and Melinda Gates in their annual letter are ‘crazy optimistic‘ about ending poverty in a few decades or so and fiercely argue against the nabobs of negativity. Yet Humanosphere wonders:

  1. Do most people really believe Myth 1, that poor countries will always be poor? It sounds like a straw man. And besides, is it meaningful to laud overall economic improvement (GDP) when many of these same countries experiencing growth are not transferring that wealth to their own people? The focus needs to be on what’s happening for poor people, not for the overall economy in a country.
  2. The Gateses have always been big supporters of government foreign aid. Humanosphere totally agrees with them that aid can be incredibly valuable and worthwhile. But where does aid come from? Governments, mostly. One commentator in The Guardian asked recently Is Bill Gates a Hypocrite? since, as a philanthropist, he calls for more foreign aid while Microsoft (like many corporations) engages in major tax avoidance?
  3. Melinda’s contribution to this year’s annual letter aims to debunk the commonly held Malthusian view that saving children’s lives just worsens the population pressure on the planet. She rightly points to the massive evidence (which Bill once called the ‘virtuous cycle’) that by reducing childhood mortality in poor communities you also allow families to reduce their birth rates. No need to have ten kids so five survive to work the farm if every child now survives. This is a myth and misperception well worth attacking.

On many fronts, arguably in part because the international community in 2000 did set these specific MDG goals (especially for fighting certain diseases like AIDS and malaria), we have made stunning progress. As the Gateses say in their letter, the past decade or so has seen significant reductions in child and maternal mortality, for example, and the proportion of humankind living in extreme poverty has declined substantially.

But are all these achievements due to the fact that the world, for a while anyway, was optimistic? And is it really a risk to point out things going badly?

Bill and Melinda Gates with children at an Anganwadi centre in Jamsaut village near Patna, Bihar, India.
Bill and Melinda Gates with children at an Anganwadi centre in Jamsaut village near Patna, Bihar, India.

Arguably, the progress we’ve seen against AIDS in Africa began not because everyone suddenly became hopeful but rather because activists made the deaths of millions of poor people intolerable. As a recent documentary film we profiled argued, the celebrated Global Fund and other such initiatives were made possible by fierce fights aimed at reducing the price of anti-AIDS drugs.

Should we be optimistic about our current efforts to deal with climate change? How about the global rise in wealth inequality? Do we have enough food, water and land to support the current trajectory for the planet’s population growth?

Truth is, not everything out there is getting better and it’s a bit simplistic – if not dangerous – to promote that kind of a mindset. We are making progress on some fronts but many of these – like vaccine-preventable illnesses in kids – represent low-hanging fruit. We are entering a new era, in which the politically neutral targeted interventions aimed at problems with simple and clear solutions are receding thanks to our successes.

Now comes the next phase, in which the international community must deal with more complex and highly political problems like wealth inequality, establishing public interest rules for mega-multinational corporations, the threat to the global commons presented by climate change and many other challenges that can make your head spin simply by trying to define the problem.

By all means, let’s celebrate progress. But let’s not forget all those millions, if not billions, of people out there who don’t yet see cause to celebrate.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Brad

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I fully agree, we are making a lot of progress, but one area that seems to be increasing is income (and health) inequalities WITHIN countries. It is not enough to look simple at countries anymore as even within a country the disparities have been increasing dramatically since the 1960s.

  • philippeboucher

    Brad is completely right while Bill and Melinda live in a fantasy world. Did they read today’s Seattle Times with this article about the growing number of homeless families? do they even see the growth of poverty (and inequality) in the US? Right where they live when they are not traveling abroad to see poverty there?
    Interestingly a few Microsoft billionaires have given a few hundreds thousands $ to help ‘homeless outreach’… Sorry to say that’s peanuts for them and that’s peanuts to seriously diminish homelessness in our area.
    Can a billionaire really understand poverty? Bill does not seem to get it (maybe it would be too uncomfortable?)

  • philippeboucher

    here is the article about the 3 Seattle billionaires foundations giving $450K
    in another article Warren Buffett is going to sponsor trying to guess basket ball games results…It will be so fun. Until a revolution?

  • WestSeaSarah

    Philppeboucher- the Gates Foundation has spent more than $1 billion on family homelessness in Washington state. It’s documented on their website.