by Gitura MWAURA
Photo: Multimillionaire Bill Gates (onlinegadgetstore.com)
Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of an American multinational software giant, Microsoft, has made a bold prediction in his 2014 Gates Annual Letter.
By 2035, he suggests, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. There are those who would not like to believe him, which he attributes to three myths. The first myth, he says, is the belief that poor countries are doomed to stay poor. The second myth is the notion that foreign aid is a big waste, with the third suggesting that saving lives leads to overpopulation.
Looked at closely, the second and third myths affirm the first, or feed from the first, and vice versa. “The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful,” Gates writes.
That anyone should hold the belief that “life in Africa never gets better, and it never will,” he describes it as a most pernicious version of the first myth.
To dispel the myth he looks at the available facts, pointing out that countries supposedly doomed to remain poor have not stayed poor.
“The percentage of very poor people has dropped by more than half since 1990,” he observes.
He notes that gross domestic product (GDP) which, on average describes annual income per person, has risen in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 50 years, while seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.
While the annual income per person in a country such as Ethiopia is $800 (RwF 545,000), Botswana has a GDP of $12,000 (Rwf 8,160,000). But on average across Africa, “after plummeting during the debt crisis of the 1980s, (the GDP) has climbed by two thirds since 1998, to nearly $2,200 from just over $1,300.”
Africa, he writes, has also made big strides in health and education. Since 1960, the life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years, despite the HIV epidemic. Without HIV it would be 61 years.
The percentage of children in school has gone from the lowly 40s to over 75 percent since 1970.
With such gains one can see why it is a myth that life in Africa never gets better, and never will.
On the second myth, that foreign aid is a big waste, Gates points out that 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.
He lists former major recipients that hardly receive any aid today: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia.
South Korea, he observes, received enormous amounts of aid after the Korean War, and is now a net donor. China is also a net aid donor and funds a lot of science to help developing countries. India receives 0.09 percent of its GDP in aid, down from 1 percent in 1991.
These are persuasive arguments, which, with the healthy dose of optimism that he displays makes one see why he believes that there will be almost no poor countries left in the world in the next twenty years.
What about the myth that saving lives leads to overpopulation?
He enumerates the achievements then puts them in a historical perspective: A baby born in 1960 had an 18 percent chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, the odds are less than 5 percent. In 2035, they will be 1.6 percent.
Does this imply saving lives can be a negative thing, say, overpopulation?
The irony is that saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. In fact, he notes, 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.
Rwanda provides an apt example. Limiting reproduction started by helping women seize control of their own lives. In a span of only 5 years, from 2005 to 2010, the fertility rate decreased from 6.1 children per woman in Rwanda to 4.6 children.
Perhaps Bill Gates has a point.
The writer is a commentator on local and regional affairs.