Bill Gates is of course a name synonymous with Microsoft Corp.. But in recent years, Gates has sought to extend his legacy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which works in the field of global development. With its massive endowment ($40 billion), annual disbursements ($3.4 billion each in 2011 and 2012) and the charisma of its celebrity promoter, BMGF is a giant in the world of private philanthropies that have mushroomed around the globe over the last decade or so.

In the process, the annual letters published by the Gates to lay out their guiding philosophy for the general public has turned into a message (and possibly manifesto) eagerly read and analysed by the aid and development community. This year, the 2014 Gates Annual Letter dealt with what it called ‘three myths that block progress for the poor’: the idea that poor countries will always be that way; that foreign aid is a waste and will not ameliorate the situation; and that where aid, related to saving lives, does work, it will lead to overpopulation.

To the extent that myths are commonly held and salient, and that this, in turn, does block global improvements in welfare, there are merits in debunking them before the general reading public. But there is also good reason to hold off on the applause on this particular effort. In this column, I take a critical look at each of the letter’s three themes in turn, beyond the general feel-goodness that the Gates would like to leave us with.

Myth One: Poor countries are doomed to stay poor

Bill Gates argues that most countries are on an upward trajectory with incomes rising steadily, infrastructure improving, significant gains made in public health, etc. Following on from here, Gates makes the prediction that by 2035, no country will remain poor. Before considering whether this ‘myth’ is true, it is important to recognize that this is a poor (even wrong) diagnosis of the problem. We ought to worry not about the fates of entire countries, but about the poor in these countries and their prospects for improvement. Research has shown that the new ‘bottom billion’ are not the aggregate populations of poor countries, but the aggregate of poor households across the globe, many of whom live in middle-income countries such as India. Therefore, talking about developed and developing countries, without disaggregating the rich and poor in these countries, or understanding income and social inequalities in these countries, is just not a useful lens to understand the challenge we face.

Myth Two: Foreign aid is a big waste

Bill Gates argues that aid lays the ground for long-term economic progress; that foreign aid is really not as substantial as it is touted to be; that aid has had some significant wins, especially in public health, etc. This is a point that has its share of supporters (Jeffry Sachs, Bono, etc) and has been criticised by others (Angus Deaton, Bill Easterly, etc), including in Mint on the grounds that more important than aid, is trade and growth. The argument also goes that domestic economic policies and global efforts to ensure a level playing field are likely to have a more significant impact on the poor in a country than foreign aid. As evident from Gates’ letter itself, there are some parts that seem to have worked and in many other areas, we have witnessed how no amount of aid can help an entire economy break out of its slumber —at best, it can help slow the slide, or temporarily step in for national and local governments. The evidence Gates marshals is one-sided and takes little notice of politics and institutions.

Myth Three: Saving lives leads to overpopulation

This part of the letter, authored by Melinda Gates, is honestly, a bit bizarre. Is this really a myth that might be held by serious policymakers or analysts across the globe, or by those contributing to aid through their taxes and donations? Malthus has been successfully debunked decades ago and if one has to worry, it should be regarding the consequences of a bulging population on—especially—that of the youth population around the world. In a difficult economic environment, in an increasingly young globe, the consequences of poor quality of education, increasing unemployment and a rise in extremism should concern policymakers everywhere. That Gates choose not to touch on this at all is another instance where this letter skips the hard questions.

To conclude, the 2014 Gates Annual Letter fails to pack a punch. The three topics that are discussed suffer in varying degrees: on one, it misdiagnoses the problem; on the second, it comes down too simplistically on one side; and on the third, it unnecessarily lends credence to a non-issue.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development. Over the last decade, he has worked with a range of development agencies in India, Ghana and Kenya

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