Getting the Facts Straight: Bill and Melinda Gates Debunk 3 Myths that Block Global Progress

Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

January 21, 2014 - Bill and Melinda Gates, in their foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter released today, counter three myths about global poverty – and ask others to help bust the myths.

In the letter, “Three Myths that Block Progress for the Poor,” the Gates point to concrete data to debunk misconceptions about poverty and the efficacy of fighting it.

“If you read the news every day, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse,” Bill Gates writes. “There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on bad news, of course—as long as you get it in context. 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.”

The three myths the Gates tackle are: 1.) Poor countries are doomed to stay poor, 2.) Foreign aid is a big waste, and 3.) Saving lives leads to overpopulation.

Myth #1: Poor countries are doomed to stay poorIn arguing that poor countries are not doomed to stay poor, Bill Gates points to the fact that over the last several decades, the world has gone through a remarkable transformation – many of the countries once considered poor now have thriving economies. Today, seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

The prospects for helping even more countries make this transition are very good as well, he explains. Gates projects that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world (specifically, no country will be as poor as any of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today, even after inflation adjustments).

“Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer,” he says. “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."

Myth #2: Foreign aid is a waste. Foreign assistance helps combat poverty and disease, and actually delivers a fantastic return on investment, Bill Gates says in the letter. He points to health gains funded through aid: the eradication of smallpox worldwide, the elimination of polio as a threat in the Americas, and a vaccination campaign in southern Africa that virtually eliminated measles as a killer of children.

Aid lays the groundwork for long-term economic progress that ultimately leaves countries less dependent on it, he says, pointing to countries such as Botswana, Brazil, Malaysia, and others that were once major aid recipients and no longer are. And in the U.S., it accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget (on health aid, the U.S. government spends more than twice as much on farm subsidies and 60 times as much on the military).

“Above all, I hope we can stop discussing whether aid works, and spend more time talking about how it can work better,” he writes.

Myth #3: Saving lives leads to overpopulation. Melinda Gates argues that saving lives is not at odds with efforts to slow population growth. Birth rates actually decline when fewer children die. Why? Because when children are well nourished, vaccinated, and treated for common illnesses, the future is more predictable and parents make decisions based on the expectation their children will live. In Thailand, for example, child mortality rates started going down in 1960, and around 1970 – after government investment in a strong family planning program – birth rates started to drop. Thai women went from having an average of six children to an average of two in the course of just two decades.

This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birth rates is a phenomenon known by demographers as “demographic transition,” and it applies for the vast majority of the world, Melinda Gates writes.

“Given all the evidence, my view of a sustainable future is much more optimistic than the Malthusians’ view,” she says. “The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but rather when they are able to improve their lives. Human beings are not machines. We don’t reproduce mindlessly. We make decisions based on the circumstances we face.”

Read the full letter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and join the #StoptheMyth conversation.