This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual letter is addressed to their friend, Warren Buffett, who in 2006 donated the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation. A few months ago, Warren Buffett asked the Gates’ to reflect on the impact his gift has had on the world.
As so many organisations, individuals, and governments have similar goals as the Gates Foundation – fighting poverty, disease and inequality – Bill and Melinda Gates decided to address not just how their foundation was doing to improve lives, but how the world was doing. Their answer is more optimistic than you might think.
The Gates conceived of their foundation years ago while on a tour of Africa. Once away from the game parks and tourist attractions, they were startled by the poverty. “Children were dying from diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria. Kids in rich countries don’t die from these things.” To the Gates, it seemed a matter of economic justice. While most of us might throw up our hands in despair at the shear magnitude of the problem, to them it seemed solvable.
Their approach is to break a problem down into solvable pieces, and then focus assets accordingly (and here, their friend Warren Buffett provides inspiration), but only by “using resources wisely and never wasting money when it can be avoided.”
In that vein, sometimes it turns out that smart policy rather than vast amounts of money can achieve powerful results. For example, from 2008 through 2015, Rwanda was able to cut its newborn mortality rate by 30 percent simply by encouraging some relatively inexpensive best practices, specifically:
- Breastfeeding in the first hour, and exclusively for the first six months.
- Cutting the umbilical cord in a hygienic way.
- Skin-to-skin contact between mother and newborn baby to raise the baby’s body temperature.
The Gates also discuss the importance of empowering women and its relationship to poverty. They note that 'poverty is sexist’ and point out that 'the poorer the society, the less power women have'. This is especially true when it comes to asserting reproductive rights.
They explain that, "no country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives." The way to get a country out of poverty lies in sending a generation of healthy, well-educated young people into the workforce. “But this doesn’t happen by accident. When women are empowered with birth control, “this leads to fewer dependents that need government services, a growing workforce that includes more women, and more resources for sending children to school”.
- Overall, Bill and Melinda are optimistic about the future. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Despite popular perceptions, over the last 25 years extreme poverty has been cut in half;
- 122 million children’s lives have been saved since 1990 -- these are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990;
- Coverage for the basic childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent;
- The complete eradication of polio and malaria will happen in the foreseeable future.
They point out that their foundation, and Warren Buffet’s massive contribution, are part of an ecosystem of organisations, “This ecosystem helps countries spend their money where it matters most. It directs scientific capacity toward research that will make an impact in the lives of the poor."