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Bill and Melinda Gates bet on a technologically improved future

News analysis

The annual letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for 2015, is out and the title for this year is Our Big Bet for the Future.

Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.

Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.

Given what the Gates are betting on, some might want to dub it the Big Bet Back to the Future. It’s mostly just a variation on what the Gateses said last year, and a review of the philanthropy’s long-established strategy.

“Our big bet,” begins the 2015 letter written by Bill and Melinda Gates (crafted in consultation with any of the 100 or more media and advocacy advisers working there at the philanthropy), is that “the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.”

So how, in this time of an almost unprecedented increase in wealth inequality worldwide, eroding democracies, record numbers of refugees or others displaced by conflict and looming climate disruptions, will this positive prediction come to pass?

“We think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries,” write the Gateses.  “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.”

Ah, yes. Technological breakthroughs. Back to the Future.

Most people know that the Gates Foundation was launched some 15 years ago (according to the letter, though they actually started their philanthropic explorations in the mid-to-late 1990s) based largely on the premise that technology – especially health technologies, like vaccines – could be a prime mover in the fight against poverty and inequity.

The world’s largest philanthropy has invested heavily in a number of such techno-fixes, such as new vaccines, to stunningly positive effect. Most of us, me included, like the idea that poverty and inequity can be fought with technological advances. It’s certainly partly true. And such a solution requires no messy politics and not much personal sacrifice. It’s a win-win game plan that most of us, most of the media included, think is just super fantastic (to mimic Bill’s lingo a bit):

Bloomberg Bill Gates expects historic improvement in lives of the poor

Mashable Lives of poor people will vastly improve by 2030 

Geekwire Bill and Melinda Gates: How the smartphone will lift up the world

And so on, with breathless celebration. Now, it is important and useful for anti-poverty advocates like Bill and Melinda to express hope that things can get better. Too many people, perhaps most, tend to focus on the negatives and are especially deficient in the hope department when it comes to the plight of the poorest and most disenfranchised people on the planet.

Like the Bible says, to paraphrase numerous such references in both the old and new texts: “The poor are screwed, always.”

So it’s wonderful that the world’s richest people don’t believe that.

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.

But counting on technology as the primary means for reducing global poverty and inequity is as much a belief system, a step of faith, as it is based on the evidence. Some, though probably not many in the tech and business media biz, might even say it’s delusional. There’s plenty of evidence – arguably more, in fact – to suggest that technologies are better viewed as potentially powerful but inert tools for change that will only succeed if supported by more fundamental political, economic, cultural and social advances.

Saying that is much less fun than turning poop into water or imagining that smartphones, simply by existing, will somehow alter the political balance in favor of the poor or middle class.

The Gates letter, which does make some mention of the challenge of climate change, makes no reference to the massive and growing threat of wealth concentration and inequality. In fact, beyond Bill Gates’ mild critique of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital, which challenges some widely held beliefs on capitalism’s natural tendency to right wrongs, the Gateses have pretty much stayed out of the global debate over wealth inequality, global tax avoidance and other trends helping the rich get richer.

One anti-poverty expert, Dean Baker (writing in AJ), contends the Gates are even defenders of inequality. I don’t think that’s true, but not speaking out against something can often be seen as implicit support.

Maybe it’s no surprise that the world’s richest couple and the founder of a corporation that, like most corporations, seeks to avoid taxes would want to be extra cautious when talking about inequality. But the Gates Foundation used to be crazy bold, surprising, revolutionary even. I especially miss the bold and challenging voice of Bill Gates Sr. on things like, uh, wealth concentration, inequality and the need to tax the rich and better redistribute wealth to avoid oligarchy. Maybe that will be in next year’s letter.

The views expressed in this editorial should not be misconstrued to be seen as representing the views of anyone other than the author, and even that only applies in this moment.


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.