Apr 07, 2014 at 07:05pm IST

3 myths that block progress for the poor

By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that 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. The belief that the world can't solve extreme poverty and disease isn't just mistaken. It is harmful. That's why in this year's letter we take apart some of the myths that slow down the work. The next time you hear these myths, we hope you will do the same.

- Bill Gates

Myth one

3 myths that block progress for the poor

By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives.

Poor countries are doomed to stay poor

"I've heard this myth stated about lots of places, but most often about Africa. A quick Web search will turn up dozens of headlines and book titles such as 'How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor."

Incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa. So why this myth is so deeply ingrained?

Today, the city is mind-blowingly different, different from what it was 50 years ago. Its air is as clean as Los Angeles' (which isn't great, but certainly an improvement from 1987). There are high-rise buildings, new roads, and modern bridges. There are still slums and pockets of poverty, but by and large when I visit there now I think, "Wow, most people who live here are middle-class. What a miracle."

Look at the photo of Mexico City from 1980, and compare it to one from 2011.

Mexico city 1980, 2011

You can see a similar transformation in these before-and-after photos of Nairobi and Shanghai.

Nairobi 1969, 2009

Poor countries are not doomed to stay poor. Some of the so-called developing nations have already developed. Many more are on their way. The nations that are still finding their way are not trying to do something unprecedented. They have good examples to learn from.

By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. (I mean by our current definition of poor.) Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. 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. A few countries will be held back by war, politics (North Korea, barring a big change there), or geography (landlocked nations in central Africa). And inequality will still be a problem: There will be poor people in every region.

It will be a remarkable achievement. When I was born, most countries in the world were poor. In the next two decades, desperately poor countries will become the exception rather than the rule. Billions of people will have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The idea that this will happen within my lifetime is simply amazing to me.

Some people will say that helping almost every country develop to middle-income status will not solve all the world's problems and will even exacerbate some. It is true that we'll need to develop cheaper, cleaner sources of energy to keep all this growth from making the climate and environment worse. Bringing the development agenda near to completion will do more to improve human lives than anything else we do.

Bill Gates: Foreign Aid Works #StopTheMyth

Myth two

Foreign aid is a big waste

You may have read news articles about foreign aid that are filled with big generalizations based on small examples. If you hear enough of these stories, it's easy to get the impression that aid just doesn't work. It's no wonder that one British newspaper claimed last year that more than half of voters want cuts in overseas aid.

These articles give you a distorted picture of what is happening in countries that get aid. Since Melinda and I started the foundation 14 years ago, we've been lucky enough to go see the impact of programs funded by the foundation and donor governments. I want to take on a few of the criticisms you may have read.3 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.

Foreign aid helps refugees like Nikuze Aziza feed their families and stay healthy (Kiziba Camp, Rwanda, 2011).

The Amount of Aid

Many people think that development aid is a large part of rich countries' budgets, which would mean a lot can be saved by cutting back.

For Norway, the most generous nation in the world, the budget for aid is less than 3 percent. For the United States, it's less than 1 percent.

http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/~/media/Annual Letter 2014/Myth 2/WhatAidBuysCGALInfographicMASTER06121UPDATE2.jpgThe U.S. government spends more than twice as much on farm subsidies as on health aid. It spends more than 60 times as much on the military. The next time someone tells you we can trim the budget by cutting aid, I hope you will ask whether it will come at the cost of more people dying.

Corruption

One of the most common stories about aid is that some of it gets wasted on corruption. It is true that when health aid is stolen or wasted, it costs lives. We need to root out fraud and squeeze more out of every dollar. There is a double standard at work here. I've heard people calling on the government to shut down some aid program if one dollar of corruption is found. On the other hand, four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption, and to my knowledge no one has demanded that Illinois schools be shut down or its highways closed.

Aid Dependence

Another argument from critics is that aid holds back normal economic development, keeping countries dependent on generosity from outsiders.

First, it lumps different kinds of aid together. It doesn't differentiate aid that is sent directly to governments from funding that is used for research into new tools like vaccines and seeds.

Second, the "aid breeds dependency" argument misses all the countries that have graduated from being aid recipients, and focuses only on the most difficult remaining cases.

Health aid is a phenomenal investment. When I look at how many fewer children are dying than 30 years ago, and how many people are living longer and healthier lives, I get quite optimistic about the future. The foundation worked with a group of eminent economists and global health experts to look at what's possible in the years ahead. As they wrote last month in the medical journal The Lancet, with the right investments and changes in policies, by 2035, every country will have child-mortality rates that are as low as the rate in America or the U.K. in 1980.

I have believed for a long time that disparities in health are some of the worst inequities in the world-that it is unjust and unacceptable that millions of children die every year from causes that we can prevent or treat. I don't think a child's fate should be left to what Warren Buffett calls the "ovarian lottery." If we hit this goal of convergence, the ovarian lottery for health outcomes will be closed for good.

Myth three

Saving lives leads to overpopulation

We see comments like this all the time on the Gates Foundation's blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. It makes sense that people are concerned about whether the planet can continue to sustain the human race, especially in the age of climate change. But this kind of thinking has gotten the world into a lot of trouble. Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

People have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can't keep up with population growth. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives. This was a welcome change. We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

The fact is that a laissez faire approach to development-letting children die now so they don't starve later-doesn't actually work, thank goodness. It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most deaths have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births, too. Scholars debate the precise reasons why, but the correlation between child death and birth rates is strong.

Like millions of women in sub-Saharan Africa, Sadi didn't know about contraceptives when she got married (Talle, Niger, 2012).

Saving lives doesn't lead to overpopulation. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to secure a sustainable world. We will build a better future for everyone by giving people the freedom and the power to build a better future for themselves and their families.

Looking ahead

If you read the news every day, it's easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse. Melinda and I are disgusted by the fact that more than six million children died last year. But we are motivated by the fact that this number is the lowest ever recorded. We want to make sure it keeps going down.

We hope you will help get the word out on all these myths. If you're looking to donate a few dollars, you should know that organizations working in health and development offer a phenomenal return on your money. The next time you're in an online forum and someone claims that saving children causes overpopulation, you can explain the facts.

We all have the chance to create a world where extreme poverty is the exception rather than the rule, and where all children have the same chance to thrive, no matter where they're born. For those of us who believe in the value of every human life, there isn't any more inspiring work under way in the world today.

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