Innovation is about to improve the lives of the poor like never before, say Bill and Melinda Gates.
In their latest Gates Foundation annual letter — which outlines the $42 billion nonprofit’s yearly agenda — the couple detailed their ambitious 15-year plan and emphasized the role technology and innovation can and will play in eradicating disease, fighting hunger and poverty, and improving education.
“The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else's,” they wrote in the letter titled, “Our Big Bet for the Future,” published online Thursday.
Founded in 2000, the Gates Foundation is one of the most influential foundations on the planet, in part for its sheer size. As the Washington Post put it:
[The Gates Foundation] has shaken up the world of international aid with its focus on measurable goals (often lives saved) and its ability to rally large and diverse groups of stakeholders to work together toward a common goal.
Some organizations and individuals have questioned the foundation’s priorities over the years, arguing that it is drawing resources away from worthier causes, and expressed worry that its mammoth size — its endowment is $42 billion — is stifling a diversity of views because it funds so many projects in certain fields.
But even its critics have found it hard to argue with its success ...
Previous annual letters focused on one idea or issue, and generally on health. But the Gateses are now predicting major progress in four areas.
Technology, they said, will play a pivotal role in reducing child and maternal mortality and in wiping out diseases such as polio, river blindness, elephantiasis, and blinding trachoma, which affect tens of millions in developing countries.
Innovations in agriculture will be key to ending the food crisis in places like Africa, they said, where a large percentage of the population are farmers and yet billions are spent in food imports every year. Better fertilizer as well as crops that are more productive, nutritious, and drought- and disease-resistant, they said, are the first steps to changing that.
“Innovations in farming could enable African farmers to increase their yields by half,” they wrote.
The Gateses also foresee mobile banking as vital in improving financial services to the poor. More than 2.5 billion people have no access to banking services, according to the World Bank, mostly due to the high cost of traditional banking. At the same time, smartphones are becoming cheaper and more accessible.
Mobile banking provides a way to make up for the lack of banking infrastructure in poor communities, research shows. Kenya leads the way with the mobile-money service M-PESA, launched in 2007, but other countries are already following suit.
“Digital banking will give the poor more control over their assets and help them transform their lives,” the Gateses wrote.
Better technology will also give people improved access to education and transform the way students think and learn. They cited ongoing efforts, such as the $6-a-month tuition fee that the nonprofit Bridge International Academies offers students in Nairobi, and the free lessons and resource tools that Khan Academy provides.
The ripple effects of equal access to education, the Gateses said, will change the world.
“As high-speed cell networks grow and smartphones become as cheap as today's voice-only phones, online education will flourish,” they wrote. “For people in rich countries, it will be an important step forward.... in places where growth is creating demand for educated workers, it will be a revolution.”
Of course, the challenges are significant. Completely eradicating a disease has only been done once in modern history, according to UNICEF. Helping the African population, which is growing exponentially, feed itself has been a humanitarian goal for decades. And for millions, education remains nothing more than a pipe dream.
But the Gateses don’t expect to work alone: They capped off their letter with a call to action, encouraging readers to do their part in ending world suffering by participating in the Gates Foundation’s effort, called Global Citizen. Those who sign up will receive updates on how to help and have the opportunity to connect with others who care about similar issues.
“The more global citizens there are, and the more active and effective they are, the more progress the world will make,” they wrote. “We hope you will show your support by signing up, because we believe that people can and must work together more to make the world a more equitable place.”
“In fact,” they added, “we’re betting on it.”