Bill and Melinda Gates: 3 Myths About the World’s Poor

Life is improving for most people on this planet: Leading philanthropists deliver good news about global poverty.

happy school children
Frederic Courbet/Courtesy © Bil & Melinda Gates Foundation

By almost any measure, the world is better off now than it has ever been. Extreme poverty has been cut in half over the past 25 years, child mortality rates are plunging around the globe, and many of the countries that have long relied on foreign aid are now self-sufficient.

So why do so many people seem to think things are getting worse? Much of the reason is because they’re in the grip of three deeply damaging myths about global poverty and development. But the belief that the world is getting worse isn’t just mistaken — it’s also detrimental. It stalls progress and blinds us to the opportunity we have to create a world where almost everyone has a chance to prosper.

1. Poor Countries Are Doomed to Stay Poor
Incomes and other measures of welfare are rising almost everywhere. Take Mexico City. In 1987, when we first visited, most homes lacked running water, and we saw people trekking to fill up water jugs; it reminded us of rural Africa. The guy who ran Microsoft’s Mexico City office would send his kids back to the United States for checkups to make sure the smog wasn’t making them sick.

Today, the city is mind-blowingly different, boasting high-rise buildings, cleaner air, and new roads and bridges. You still find pockets of poverty, but when we visit, we think, Wow, most people here are middle-class — what a miracle. You can see a similar transformation in Nairobi, New Delhi, Shanghai, and many other cities. In our lifetime, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Since 1960, China’s income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, thanks to shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half of the world’s population.

This holds true even in Africa. Since 1998, income per person has climbed by two thirds — from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies from the past half decade are in Africa.

We are optimistic enough that we’re willing to make a prediction: By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Yes, a few countries will be held back by war, political realities (such as North Korea), or geography (such as landlocked states in central Africa). And inequality will still be a problem. But every country in South America, Asia, and Central America (except perhaps Haiti) — and most in coastal Africa — will be middle-income nations. More than 70 percent of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today.

melinda gates volunteering
Prashant Panjiar/Courtesy © Bil & Melinda Gates Foundation

2. Foreign Aid Is a Waste
We worry about this myth. It gives leaders an excuse to cut back on aid — and that would mean fewer lives saved and more time before countries can become self-sufficient. Foreign aid is a phenomenal investment. It doesn’t just save lives; it also lays the groundwork for lasting, long-term progress.

Many people think that foreign aid is a large part of rich countries’ budgets. When pollsters ask Americans what share goes to aid, the most common response is “25 percent.” In fact, it is less than 1 percent, or about $30 billion a year. The U.S. government spends more than twice as much on farm subsidies as on international health aid; it spends more than 60 times as much on the military.

One common complaint is that aid gets wasted on corruption, and some of it does. But the horror stories you hear — where aid helped a dictator build palaces — come mostly from a time when aid was designed to win Cold War allies rather than improve people’s lives. The problem today is much smaller. We should try to reduce small-scale corruption, but we can’t eliminate it, any more than we can eliminate waste from every business or government program. Many people call to end aid programs if one dollar of corruption is found. However, four of the past seven governors of Illinois went to prison for corruption, and no one is demanding that the state’s schools or highways be closed.

Critics also complain that aid keeps countries dependent on outsiders’ generosity. But this argument focuses on the most difficult cases still struggling for self-sufficiency. Here is a list of former recipients that have grown so much that they receive little aid today: Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Botswana, Morocco, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Critics are right to say there is no definitive proof that aid drives economic growth. But we know that it drives improvements in health, agriculture, and infrastructure, which correlate strongly with long-run growth. Look at what aid has accomplished: A baby born in 1960 had an 18 percent chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, it is less than 5 percent; in 2035, it will be 1.6 percent. We can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in welfare that even comes close.

3. Saving Lives Leads to Overpopulation
For more than two centuries, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. But this anxiety has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the humans who make up that population. Letting children die now so they don’t starve later isn’t just heartless — it doesn’t work. And countries with the highest death rates are among the fastest-growing populations in the world: Women there tend to have the most births.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality rates started going down. In the 1970s, after the government invested in a family-planning program, birthrates started to drop. Over two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to two. Today, child mortality rates there are almost as low as they are in America, and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children.

This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for most of the world. Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation — just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy health, prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

More people, especially political leaders, need to know about the misconceptions behind these myths. Contributions to promote international health and development offer an astonishing return. We all have the chance to create a world where extreme poverty is the exception rather than the rule and where all children have the chance to thrive. For those of us who believe in the value of every human life, there isn’t any more inspiring work under way today.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest