Gates: The 3 Myths Of Aid To Underdeveloped Nations

March 13, 2014       Mark Hrywna      

Washington, D.C. – At any level of wealth, it’s better to be alive today than at any other time in history, according to Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Microsoft founder sat down with The Atlantic for a nearly hour-long conversation in front of an audience as part of The Atlantic Exchange series (#ATLX), moderated by Editor-in-Chief James Bennet at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.

“We’re big on metrics,” Gates said. “It’s getting easier all the time.” The most accurate figure to determine whether aid is working for countries is not GDP but infant mortality. “People tend to remember if their child dies,” said Gates.

In 1960, 20 million children younger than 5 died each year and that figure is down to 6 million today, and there is a “clear path with generosity to get to three million,” Gates said.

“There’s a near perfect correlation” — with about a 10-year lag — between good health and high population growth, Gates said. As child death rates decline, so does average family size.

That essentially exposes one of the three myths about providing aid to the underdeveloped world. Gates expounded on those three myths, which were the focus of his 2014 annual letter: Poor countries are doomed to stay poor; foreign aid is a big waste, and saving lives leads to overpopulation.

[Link to Gates Foundation’s annual letter: http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#section=myth-two]

When giving aid, Gates said it’s important to keep in mind the expectations for that money. Put simply, were more people fed?

In venture capital, 80 percent of investments don’t do well, Gates said, while in development aid, it’s probably about a quarter of as many failures. “Over time, we’re getting smarter,” Gates said.

On whether the current administration is actively engaged in development, Gates said he’d give “high marks for the giving we do.” The low point for aid by the United States came at the end of the Clinton administration before improving during the second Bush administration, likely a result of the AIDS crisis in Africa and wars in the Middle East, and continuing to increase under the Obama administration.

The United States is the biggest contributor of foreign aid by absolute dollars, at about $136 billion annually, which is about 0.22 percent of GDP. That lags Europe as a whole (at 0.25 percent) and the United Kingdom, which has improved from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent, according to Gates. Norway and Sweden are the global leaders at about 1 percent of GDP.

Gates spoke with Bennet for about 40 minutes before taking several questions from an audience of several dozen, touching on topics ranging from innovation, entrepreneurship, education and global health.

Polio is what Gates spends the most time on and only three countries remain where it has not been eradicated: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Outbreaks in Syria and Somalia this year are under control and he is hopeful that it could be eradicated in Nigeria in the next 12 to 18 months, setting up global certification possibly by 2018.