Bill and Melinda Gates: The world’s priority should be poverty reduction in Africa

Bill and Melinda Gates say improving health and education in Africa should be the world’s priority.

“Decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,” they write in a report released today (Sept. 18) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.”

Demographics are a driving factor: The world’s population is growing fastest in its poorest regions, notably parts of Africa. “The shift of where kids are being born is to the places where it’s the most difficult to get the nutrition, vaccines, and education to those kids,” Bill Gates says in an interview. “If you run these economic models, [it] could be 90% of the people in extreme poverty are on one continent.” The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria alone are forecast to be home to more than 40% of the extremely poor people in the world by 2050.

On top of that, development aid from the richest countries has flattened out. “It hasn’t been easy to even maintain these levels,” says Gates. He believes the Syrian civil war and the 2008 financial crisis—in contributing to nationalism and distrust of elites—have dampened global giving. “Take those two away and I’ll bet that I can get aid levels up maybe 25% higher than they are today.”

The Gates’ warning comes as the UN convenes for its yearly General Assembly in New York. Their report is an annual initiative, begun last year, to bring attention to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), high-profile 2030 targets around global health and poverty that UN members adopted in 2015.

Those goals, which focus on areas ranging from poverty reduction to climate change and gender equality, remain elusive. Statistical analysis conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which contributed to the report and gets funding from the Gates Foundation, has suggested most countries will achieve few, if any, of the 17 SDGs.

The Gates’ aim this year is to show that investing in health and education in Africa can shift the trajectory; they forecast that such investments could increase the size of the sub-Saharan economy by roughly 90% by 2050. “The data show that differences in health and education levels explain as much as 30% of the variance in per-capita GDP between countries,” they write.

“Just having a lot of people who can work doesn’t mean they get work, but nevertheless, statistically that seems to contribute to faster economic growth,” says Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “When you combine that with having people of working age that are more educated, have better skills, and are healthier, that’s where you get human capital and the demographics lining up to contribute to faster economic growth.”

The report highlights Vietnam as a model for the progress possible in the area of education, with students performing better on academic tests than their peers in much wealthier countries. While the worldwide number of children, including girls, enrolled in school has increased dramatically over the past two decades, the quality of that education needs improvement.

“The world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa,” the Gates write in the report, noting the two earlier waves of poverty reduction in China and India that have contributed to the emergence of over a billion people from extreme poverty over the last two decades.

Bill Gates acknowledges addressing the problems in Africa can be especially hard, compared to India, for example. “In terms of quality of governance, you’ve got a lot of variability in Africa and then you have the challenge that there’s a lot of smaller countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger—these are super important countries in that they still have a very high mortality rates and not much infrastructure.”

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