New Delhi: Philanthropist Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the most influential women in the world, maintains that India is closer than ever to the goal of eradicating poverty and improving access to health for all. In their annual letter, published in January, Melinda and Bill Gates stated that by 2035, there will be no poor countries left in the world. In an email interview, Melinda Gates discussed the foundation’s work in India. Edited excerpts:

What projects in India are you most excited about?

There’s a lot to be excited about. There is so much human potential in India, and it’s being realized more and more every day.

All across the country, there have been such wonderful examples of what can happen when people are able to take a role in shaping a better future for themselves and their families and help push India towards that future. Self-help groups are providing a path for people who didn’t have voices before—people like sex workers living with HIV—to become a part of the solution to the AIDS crisis.

Frontline workers have helped India eradicate polio entirely by getting a vaccination to every child, everywhere. And thanks to that work, now basic healthcare is available to every single Indian, even in the poorest, most remote parts of the country. At the Gates Foundation, all our work is driven by the principle that all lives are equal and every person should have the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life—the life they want. India is closer to that goal than ever, and when it gets there, it’s going to make the country—and the world—a much better place to be.

Since the target of reducing poverty is a work in progress, it is never an entirely achievable target. You actually think by 2035 there will be no poor countries? Is this overambitious or unrealistic?

Yes, it’s ambitious, which is a good thing, but Bill and I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all.

If there is any place on earth that has seen that progress is possible, it’s India. In the last 60 years, India’s per person income has quadrupled. Sure, that is in large part due to India’s sizeable and highly skilled population, but it’s also because when we invest in healthy children, we build a productive workforce for the future—and that can lift everyone up.

Sometimes economic growth at a national level can hide inequalities within a country. But India is showing that doesn’t have to be the case. Even in Bihar and UP (Uttar Pradesh), where there is still work to do, the trends are moving in the right direction. Bihar’s economy grew by 11% in 2012 and then again by 14% in 2013. And child mortality is going down as fast in Bihar and UP as it is in the rest of India. This is a trend we’re seeing all over the world, not just in India, but in places like Mexico and Brazil too. Income and human welfare are rising almost everywhere. If we keep supporting this progress and making the investments in the world’s poorest people, this is absolutely a target we can reach.

When it comes to foreign aid, how worrying is the dependency issue? The Gates Foundation’s work usually gets poorer nations run national programmes based on donor funding. What happens when the funding runs out?

First off, it’s worth noting that we don’t give money directly to governments. We join forces with them to tackle the world’s biggest problems together. These kinds of partnerships are actually a great way to help nations make progress in the short term so that they aren’t dependent on aid for the long run.

In other words, aid can help a country become self-sustaining. We’ve seen that in places like Botswana and Thailand, which used to receive a lot of aid and now receive almost none. And we’re seeing that here in India, which is on that same path to self-sufficiency. It was the Indian government that funded the push to eradicate polio, and it’s the national and state governments that are making the investments in places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to create a healthier, better future for the people who live there.

Aid is not a substitute for this spending. Instead, it’s a way to partner with governments as they figure out how to spend their money best. Aid is also important because it can help fund those things that no one country can take on by themselves, like scientific research into better vaccines and tools to fight infectious diseases like tuberculosis. But ultimately, all countries’ social programmes will be driven by their own governments’ money, and that’s the way it should be.

How do you connect investments in family planning with agriculture, education, nutrition and health?

It’s critical. When I travel around India and talk to people about what they need to make a better life for themselves and their families, what I hear, especially from mothers, is that they need all of these things: education, nutrition, healthcare for people of all ages, family planning tools. Family planning is crucial to the equation because when women have access to information and contraceptives they want to plan and space their pregnancies, it helps spark a virtuous cycle. Both mothers and their children are healthier, and they have better nutrition and increased access to education. This doesn’t only lift up families—the impact can help lift whole communities.

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