Gates’ Foundation Annual Letter – 3 myths that block progress for the poor
The annual letter from the Gate’s foundation, set-up by the software-billionaire turned philanthropist Bill Gates, made interesting reading.
Since handing over day-to-day running of the colossal Microsoft Corporation, Gates and his wife have turned their attention to the some of the world’s poorest countries, spending their wealth in addressing some of the developing world’s most stubborn problems.
And this year Gates summarised obstacles he had confronted along his journey so far, to challenge some of the key [top three] myths he believed were most responsible for blocking progress for these impoverished countries.
Gates maintained a somewhat optimistic tone when addressing the first two of these myths [“Poor Countries are doomed to stay Poor” and “Foreign Aid is a big waste”], arguing the world was doing much better than we think, although he relies on the same “average” statistics that obscure so much of the really entrenched problems.
The fact that we have a growing middle class doesn’t cancel out the fact that millions still languish in poverty. Or that overall output is improving in some developing countries is a metric of limited use when measuring individual poverty. [Although he acknowledges the gap between rich and poor remains significant, a trend likely to remain for the near future].
But it was the third of his three questions – “saving lives leads to overpopulation” – that was most striking. That such a statement be considered worthy of answering in the first instance is bad enough – for it to be in the top three myths is almost unfathomable!
But Gates hasn’t included the myth for fun – he must have clearly confronted this belief during his numerous global engagements, and felt it sufficiently held for it to be listed up there, in the three most important myths that needed to be challenged.
Where did this myth come from and how could it ever have gained such prominent albeit quiet acceptance?
Gates [his wife, Melinda, on this occasion] explains the origins of the west’s anxiety with overpopulation dates as far back as Thomas Malthus at the end of the eighteenth century. The world’s population has indeed grown significantly over recent decades from 5 billion in 1988 to 7 billion in 2011.
United Nations researchers suggested in 2011 however that the world’s population will ‘peak’ at just over 9 billion over this century, and fall thereafter [and at worst rise very slowly]. Population growth then is set to decelerate and become less, not more, of an issue over the coming decades.
But the reason overpopulation is a concern for Capitalist policymakers is because it implies a greater strain on the earth’s already “scarce” resource – there’s not enough to go around at the best of times, according to such planners.
Some have reconciled the way out of the “scarcity” problem is through exploring ever more advanced food technologies, agricultural methods and constraining over-consumption.
Research suggests that if the continent of Africa was appropriately cultivated, it could single-handedly feed the world’s entire population. What’s more, modern farming and agricultural methods have meant less land is being used to produce more food. Large swathes of farming land are thus no longer in use; government subsidies too have encouraged perfectly good farming land to go un-used. So the land is still there, and lots of it, ready to be re-farmed to produce ever more food.
But the issue isn’t just food production. According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ Global Food Report, as much as half of the entire world’s food produce is being wasted! It goes on to suggest 30-50% of all food purchased in developed countries is simply thrown away. If this waste was brought under control, there would clearly be capacity to support considerably more people. It’s not simply about people or resources but how effectively those resources are managed and distributed.
These, amongst other facts, have led some to conclude this “scarcity” problem is therefore wholly ill-conceived. Malthus originally suggested the world would be out of food by 1890. And in 1968, his mantle was taken-up by Paul Ehrlich of Standard University who predicted overpopulation would lead to a fifth of the world’s population dying of famine by the end of the 1970s, simply because there wasn’t enough food. Their doomsday predictions have clearly come to pass.
To Gate’s myths however, some believe that quietly letting the poor die is an acceptable way out of the problem. That in some form of twisted social evolution, those who can survive, will, and those can’t, won’t. And that obstructing or interfering with this natural, “survival of the fittest” dynamic may result in unintended – and undesirable – consequences for the rest of us.
Malthus suggested in his Essay on the Principle of Population that we should “sedulously encourage… forms of destruction” to assist nature in preventing his prophesied doomsday, such as dirty conditions amongst the poor, making “the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses” and even “court the return of the plague”.
Great Capitalists, such as JD Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, were influenced by social applications of Darwinian theory promoted by the likes of Herbert Spencer, with Rockefeller suggesting “the growth of a large business is an instance of the survival of the fittest and we ought not to lament as evil the wreckage that accrues around the business because this law is the law of nature and the law of God”.
What Gates’ letter demonstrates though is that this is not some obscure belief held by some Capitalist extremists, some lunatics on some outer fringe. But that some form of it has a following, one that is sufficient to warrant its inclusion in his top three items. And whilst Gate’s attempts to challenge it, there is a failure to recognise that such a belief is systematic to the world-view that is Capitalism, even if it takes different shades of moderation and fanaticism.
Perhaps there is a question for us all. Do we want live under a system that is willing to allow such grand sacrifices – what value does life have under such a global regime? We only need to cast our attention back to the history of Capitalism and to its hosts, the colonial empires, to conclude not much at all.
In Islam, we are not cornered into making such devastating choices. Every person born to this world comes with their provision (Rizq) allotted by Allah (swt), including their provision of food. And resolving poverty is a cause Muslims are required to commit to wholeheartedly, without reluctance, or fear that doing so might give rise to negative consequences. This is reflected in everything from Islam’s taxation system (wealth rather than income based), the requirement for the state to guarantee food, clothing and shelter; to the noble status it affords charity, particularly one that seeks no return or recognition.
To Bill Gates then, this much should be clear, that to fight poverty you need a world-view that will endorse and unequivocally pursue such a cause. Not one that tempers it because of ill-conceived fears about how it might affect the better-off.