Bill and Melinda Gates release their Annual Letter today. At a time when aid is getting no shortage of bad press, it is a refreshing reminder of just how much aid can achieve.
If Bill and Melinda are proven right, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world by 2035. Or at least no countries that are suffering the poverty levels of those classified as ‘low income’ by the World Bank today. Poor countries do not stay poor, they argue; that’s a myth. Already, seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. By 2035, the vast majority of the world’s population will live in middle income countries.
And while foreign aid isn’t the only factor that has made this transformation possible – far from it – Bill and Melinda make a strong case that foreign aid has helped to lay the groundwork for growth. Yes, we are a long way from a world without inefficiencies or corruption. But foreign aid is not a big waste, they argue; that’s also a myth. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lifted 3 million people out of poverty through its aid programmes. These people are not only leading healthier and more fulfilling lives. They are contributing skills and knowledge to national economies that are now standing on their own two feet.
It has become a tradition for Bill to set out his plans through his Annual Letter, but this year Melinda has co-authored the letter for the first time. The third big theme of the letter is her personal cause, namely to end the myth that saving lives leads to over-population. If the moral argument for saving lives isn’t enough, Melinda has an answer to Malthus too. More children living through their early years doesn’t mean more people in the world, because the reality is that parents will have smaller families if they think their children will survive.
Busting these myths doesn’t mean the end of development, or the end of the debate.
No more poor countries does not mean no more poor people. Too many middle-income countries still have too many people below the poverty line. Reducing inequality, be it within low-income or middle-income countries, is more important than ever.
And while foreign aid isn’t a waste, it is an ongoing challenge to ensure that aid is spent well, and spent where it matters most, in areas like tackling climate change that are far from top priority for the Tory government.
But while the debate will continue, we should take note of this important message from Bill and Melinda Gates. Poor countries have a way out. Aid helps lay the path. And a progressive and ambitious government in the UK can help achieve that.