Why Bill and Melinda’s Annual Letter is both exciting and disappointing

Judging by his latest annual letter, if you could bottle and sell Bill Gates’ optimism, you’d probably make even more money than he has Bill and Melinda Gatesfrom software. In what they call a ‘big bet’ (actually, more like a prediction), the letter sets out Bill and Melinda’s personal version of some post-MDG goals for 2030 (Charles Kenny sees it as an implicit criticism of the official UN process on that):

‘We think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking.

These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology—ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets—and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.’

That progress includes:

  • ‘Child deaths will go down by half
  • Cutting the number of children who die before age 5 in half again
  • Reducing the number of women who die in childbirth by two thirds
  • Wiping polio and three other diseases off the face of the earth
  • Finding the secret to the destruction of malaria
  • Forcing HIV to a tipping point
  • Farming: Africa will be able to feed itself
  • Banking: Mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives
  • Education: Better software will revolutionize learning’


The final section of the letter is a ‘Call for Global Citizens’ who will ‘take a few minutes once in a while to learn about the lives of people who are worse off than you are. You’re willing to act on your compassion, whether it’s raising awareness, volunteering your time, or giving a little money.’

That’s all great, and particularly on issues such as climate change, we need that global citizens’ movement asap. We also need it to rein in the arms trade, predatory corporates and tax evasion, which aren’t mentioned (although at Davos this week Bill urged his rich colleagues to pay their taxes).

But even so, I read the letter with a growing sense of uneasiness. The Gates Foundation is full of incredibly smart, dedicated people, who must know from bitter experience that getting all this progress entails both understanding and working with the messy realities of power, systems, politics and institutions – the stuff that I write about ad nauseam on this blog. So does it matter that the Letter completely ignores them?Gates learning softwareInstead what it offers is a technocrats’ charter – a parallel universe in which new tech will solve ill health, climate change, illiteracy and just about everything else – this is a ‘thinking and working politically’ – free zone. Two reasons why that matters (there are many more).

Firstly, development is above all about domestic politics and the interaction between citizens and states. If the Ministry of Health is only interested  in looking after one part of the population, or its senior civil servants are all running private businesses out of their offices, no amount of new tech is going to help much – only politics and the struggle for accountability and better government can do that. Even in terms of resources, aid is becoming less important compared to domestic taxation and mineral revenues, neither of which get a mention (nor does inequality). Instead, the letter feels like a throwback to a ‘Make Poverty History’ frame that depicts aid, technological progress and philanthropy as the main drivers of progress. They aren’t.

Second, conflict is a massive barrier to all these potential gains, but doesn’t get a mention (maybe it’s too messy, no tech fixes?). The only reference to DRC laments its lack of paved roads, but passes over the chronic violence that has claimed millions of lives.

Is it OK to airbrush out the messiness of real developing countries, turning them into an imaginary peaceful, low income recipient of technological progress, run by well-intentioned philosopher kings (preferably elected)? I had an enjoyable argument with an Oxfam colleague on this who responded ‘why does the Foundation need to ‘do development differently’ if they are achieving successful results in addressing issues of poverty, illness, food security, technological innovation, and increased citizen voice?’ I think it matters because encouraging an apolitical mindset in the aid community has already proven to be a really bad idea, setting them up to fail and secondly, because giving the public only half the story (or less) is setting the aid business up for a bigger backlash when things go wrong (as they will, at some point).

And as poverty increasingly becomes concentrated in fragile and conflict states, the gulf between the Letter’s can-do optimism and an increasingly fragmented reality is only going to grow. The Gates Foundation people know all this, but the letter doesn’t acknowledge any of it.

Does that matter? Isn’t this a letter that is supposed to galvanize public opinion (primarily in the North) and show what is possible? Given Ebola, Syria etc, we can certainly do with a Charles Kenny style reminder that overall, things are indeed Getting Better. Maybe so, but my gut feeling is that airbrushing to this extent does the cause a disservice, and is bound to come back and haunt us one day. I think Bill and Melinda should level with people. What do you think?

Here’s Bill and Melinda in cartoon versions summarizing the letter

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6 Responses to “Why Bill and Melinda’s Annual Letter is both exciting and disappointing”
  1. Masood Ul Mulk

    Has not aid always been about the public transcript? Writing about the private transcript which those immersed in the context and those implementing see, can make many who have never seen them or have been close to the field, frigtened.

  2. Ken Smith

    Think I agree with Masood. There is not much about “working with the messy realities of power, systems, politics and institutions” in the NGO appeals that drop through my letter box or usually on their websites. Interestingly Oxfam has a separate Policy and Practice website to discuss “messy realities” maybe Oxfam should level with visitors to the main site too ?

    • Duncan Green

      Fair point Ken, but this is an 11 page epistle, not a fundraiser (Gates hardly needs to do that). So more nuance shouldn’t be as big a problem. If Bill and Melinda did two letters, one KISS and one aimed at people with a greater appetite for complexity, cf Oxfam dual track comms, I’d be more than happy!

  3. David

    I would agree that it’s concerning because the Gates Foundation, as opposed to both bilateral aid institutions like DFID and the NGOs that appeal for donations through letters, has the luxury of not needing to present a pretty face to the world so that they’re not frightened – its resources and its influence depend on Bill and Melinda Gates, not on taxpayers or small-scale individual donors. Free of the pressures to hide the messy realities of our work, why do so? Why raise people’s expectations about what’s possible? It’s not something we’d welcome from our surgeon, our attorney, or our neighbor.

  4. William Hayes

    In Bloomberg Businessweek, Charles Kenny contrasts the goals in the 2015 Gates Letter with what’s currently on the table for SDGs:

    “The letter is clearly designed to influence a round of goal-setting negotiations that will be concluded by the world’s prime ministers and presidents at the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York in September. There’s also a hint the Gateses fear an implausible and broad UN agenda that prioritizes nothing by prioritizing everything….

    “And though the Gateses write that some will think them irrationally optimistic, the draft of the new UN goals is considerably more ambitious than Bill and Melinda’s letter….

    “The bets in the Gates letter are far more likely to happen than the UN draft’s targets….

    “The Gates letter also refrains from predictions in a lot of areas where the Sustainable Development Goals are (literally) incredibly ambitious….

    “The Gates letter’s comparative modesty in coverage is partially about where their interests lie and the fact that they were writing a letter and not a book….

    “The Gateses’ annual letter is a shot across the bows of a United Nations effort that looks headed toward utopian irrelevance.”

    As someone not in any sense connected to the aid biz, I’m happy to read the comment of your colleague: “why does the Foundation need to ‘do development differently’ if they are achieving successful results in addressing issues of poverty, illness, food security, technological innovation, and increased citizen voice?” It’s good news to me that you respond to this comment, but don’t dispute its premise, viz. that GF are “achieving successful results.”

  5. Afrophile

    Gates and similarly minded technocrats would like to believe that “conflict” is something like natural disaster: an unpredictable, exogenous, random event. What they fail to see is that by abjuring involvement in local politics they actually make conflict more likely to occur. Functioning political systems, in addition to their instrumental value in enabling the delivery of health care, education, economic development programs, etc., have an intrinsic value in formalizing a process for resolving disagreements. In the long run, the stability provided by a healthy political system is a much more important part of development than any technical program (even the most successful of which are quickly undone if conflict breaks out). This post is exactly right that “development is above all about domestic politics”.