Bill and Melinda Gates letter argues against 3 poverty myths

Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates pitched an optimistic future for the world's poor and sick in their annual letter.

Philanthropist Bill Gates asserts that the world's poorest won't stay poor

Children play with empty bottles and tins in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world. Bill Gates predicts that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries remaining. (Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press)

Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates pitched an optimistic future for the world's poor and sick in their annual letter, arguing passionately against three myths they say hurt efforts to bring people out of poverty, save lives and improve living conditions.

In the past, their annual letter has focused exclusively on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's activities. But in their sixth letter published Tuesday, the co-chairs of the world's largest charitable foundation sought to dispel false notions that poor countries are doomed to stay poor, that foreign aid is wasteful and that saving lives will cause overpopulation.

"All three reflect a dim view of the future, one that says the world isn't improving but staying poor and sick, and getting overcrowded," Bill Gates writes in the 16-page letter. "We're going to make the opposite case, that the world is getting better, and that in two decades it will be better still."

Myth No. 1: Poor are staying poor

Gates says GDP per capita figures, adjusted for inflation to 2005 dollars, show that many countries such as China, India, Brazil and even Botswana that were once considered poor now have growing economies.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates assert in their annual foundation letter that decreasing child mortality and population control go hand in hand. (David Karp/Associated Press)

And in Africa, a place the Microsoft co-founder says is all too often dismissed as hopeless, life expectancy has risen since the 1960s despite the HIV epidemic. Also, more children are going to school and fewer people are hungry.

"I am optimistic enough about this that I am willing to make a prediction," he said. "By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world."

CBC's As It Happens host Carol Off asked Bill Gates whether he had taken into account the impact that climate change could have by 2035, especially on fragile emerging economies' water and food levels.

"I do mention that as you get countries to be affluent - other problems come with that," Gates said to Off, responding that development is important, but local environment issues and health problems will also need to be addressed.

Gates added that 90 per cent of  climate change is caused by "rich countries," and that the poor will suffer for it.

Myth No. 2: Foreign aid is wasteful

Gates says that development aid — for instance making drought-resistant seeds available to poor farmers — would mitigate the effects of climate change. He says that this is one area where foreign aid could help poorer countries improve productivity and avert starvation.  

He argues against claims that foreign aid is wasteful because it is too expensive, because it is stolen by corrupt officials receiving it or because countries who receive it become dependent on it.

"There are people who will take the worst programs that didn't succeed in their goals and hold them up as though they're representative," Gates says. 

He says that in Norway, the world's most generous donor of foreign aid, the amount of its budget that goes to foreign aid is only three per cent. In the U.S., it's less than one per cent, or about $30 billion per year, of which $11 billion goes to vaccines, bed nets and other health causes.

Measles vaccinations, eradicating smallpox, controlling tuberculosis in China and a plan to eliminate polio in Latin America are all public health efforts achieved with aid funding.

"Health aid is a phenomenal investment," he writes. "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."

Myth No. 3: Saving lives causes overpopulation

His wife, Melinda, wrote a section of the letter dispelling the myth that saving lives worldwide will lead to overpopulation. She points to countries such as Brazil where both child mortality and birth rates have declined.

When more children survive, she says, parents have smaller families.

We think helping out the world’s poorest and bringing the benefits of new vaccines, new seeds to them is a lot of fun.- Bill Gates

"The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but rather when they are able to improve their lives," she says. "Human beings are not machines. We don't reproduce mindlessly. We make decisions based on the circumstances we face."

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's largest charitable foundation and has made $28.3 billion in grant payments since its inception 13 years ago.

"We've developed a real excitement about the progress we see," says Gates. 

"We think helping out the world’s poorest and bringing the benefits of new vaccines, new seeds to them is a lot of fun." 

With files from CBC