Social Innovation

Bill and Melinda Gates: by ending poverty we can overcome other big challenges

Image: People prepare to grind cassava roots in Bingerville, near Abidjan. REUTERS/ Thierry Gouegnon.

Bill Gates
Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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We live in extraordinary times. Each day seems to bring fresh headlines about an unfolding crisis – whether it is migration, economic volatility, security, or climate change. One factor common to all these complex and unprecedented challenges is poverty; so eliminating it will make overcoming them significantly easier.

There is good reason for optimism about progress on reducing inequity. Since the turn of the century, remarkable strides have been taken toward a world in which every person has the chance to lead a healthy, productive life. Maternal deaths have almost halved; child mortality and malaria deaths have halved; extreme poverty has more than halved. And last year, the world signed up to finish the job.

The centerpiece of the Global Goals to which the United Nations’ 193 countries agreed in September is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030. We are confident that this is not only possible, but that we will see major breakthroughs along the way, which will provide unprecedented opportunities to people in poor countries. Indeed, we think their lives will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history – and that their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.

But while progress is possible, it is not inevitable. Success will require political will, global cooperation, and human ingenuity – a message we are taking into our various meetings and engagements at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. For our part, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will focus on the areas of greatest need and take risks that others can’t or won’t. This year, we are concentrating our efforts in three broad areas.

First, we will continue to support the institutions that helped get us to where we are now.

Since 2002, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has unlocked an unprecedented wealth of human and financial resources to combat infectious diseases that disproportionately affect the poorest. By providing medicines, training doctors and nurses, and building stronger health-care systems, the Global Fund has so far helped save 17 million lives. That is some achievement. And the Fund’s pledge conference later this year will be another opportunity to help build a better world. We need to make the most of it – not only to help save up to eight million more lives, but also to support health systems in low-income countries and thereby reduce the risk of future health crises.

Similarly, since the start of the decade, nearly four million more people are alive today because they were immunized against infectious diseases, thanks in large part to the work of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. In the next five years, Gavi and its partners are positioned to immunize another 300 million people, helping millions more children and young people survive and thrive – and thereby boosting developing-country economies.

Second, women and girls will be at the heart of our endeavors.

By any measure, the world is a better place for women and girls than ever before. But it’s still not nearly good enough. They need better access to health care, especially family-planning services; expanded economic opportunities; and more decision-making power over their own lives (which in turn requires greater social participation and public leadership).

Empowering women and girls to transform their lives is one of the smartest investments we can make. Improving their health and wellbeing, ensuring they get a good education, and unleashing their economic potential are fundamental to building more prosperous communities and countries. But we need to improve our understanding of how best to empower women to succeed. And in order to overcome centuries of gender inequity, we need more momentum behind this agenda. The Women Deliver conference in May is the next global opportunity to push for more action and for donors to demonstrate their commitment.

Third, we will invest in innovation.

Scientific and technological advances – from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets – are among the greatest drivers of poverty reduction. In just the last few weeks, the world has shown that it is prepared to spend more to find new ways to provide reliable, affordable, clean energy sources. This is one of the most important ways to help poor people cope with climate change. Meanwhile, innovations in health care have already brought the world close to wiping out polio, and we expect to see dramatic results from a new triple drug therapy that could eradicate elephantiasis, which affects 120 million people.

But the hard truth is that current funding for research and development to address the health needs of the world’s poorest people is insufficient. And the tools and technologies we have now aren’t enough to get us to where we need to be. If we want to achieve the targets established by the Global Goals for maternal health, child health, and infectious disease, we will have to double R&D funding by 2020. That is why we must ensure that R&D is on the agenda at the G7 summit in Japan in May, with a focus on developing and deploying products that both save lives and dramatically improve the economic prospects of the poorest.

Sustained support for institutions like the Global Fund and Gavi, for the empowerment of women and girls, and for innovation is crucial to accelerating progress for the world's poorest people. But much more can and should be done. The world must unite behind all efforts to eradicate poverty as a vital first step toward overcoming the many other challenges – from migration to terrorism – that we face today.

The daily headlines all too often reflect the gap between today’s world and a world without poverty. But what the headlines don’t reveal is all the ways life is already getting better for those in greatest need. If we keep our promises to them, it will be front-page news.

Authors: Bill Gates, Founder and Technology Adviser of the Microsoft Corporation, is Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Melinda Gates is Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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