We have, according to Bill Gates , never had it so good. The billionaire philanthropist's Supermac-style appraisal of the state of the globe comes in his sixth annual letter from the Gates foundation, in which he writes: "By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been." In support of this breathtaking contention, the man often rated as the world's richest (a position Mr Gates recaptured last year) explains that extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years, and that child mortality is plunging. He goes on to make the bold prediction that "by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world". All this is a refreshing antidote to the daily diet of war, climate change, diminishing resources and rising global unemployment, but is the Microsoft magnate in any way correct? A key plank of the Gates assessment is based on looking at the world as it was in 1960 and how it is now. In 1960, the world could be divided into "the west and the rest". Since then, historically poor economies have demonstrated their ability to catch up; and "by 2035, almost no country will be as poor as any of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today". The World Bank classes as low-income any country that earns below $1,035 gross national income per capita, so to meet Gates's criteria they will need to be earning more than the equivalent of that in 20 years' time. This is by no means impossible - Mr Gates cites Botswana's real income as growing 30-fold since 1960 - but it is far from easy. Some estimates suggest that, once population growth is taken into account, a poor country earning $500 per capita needs to grow by an average of 6%-7% for 20 years to reach the $1,000 threshold. As one development expert puts it, to state that almost every low-income nation will achieve this requires some heroic assumptions. A second strand of Mr Gates's Macmillan moment is global health. Citing a Lancet study, he writes that by 2035 every country could have child mortality rates that are as low or lower than the rate in the US or the UK in 1980. The Lancet study does indeed say this is possible, but it concludes: "If historical patterns . . . continue without change, we predict that the child mortality rate will continue to decrease, but by less than 28% by the year 2035 relative to 2010." This would not be enough for most countries in the study to reach under-five mortality rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 births that existed in the UK three decades ago. And even this assessment may be optimistic: current levels of spending to combat child deaths are high because child mortality is prioritised as one of the UN's millennium development goals, which mature in 2015. When the goals are redrafted, child mortality could drop down the funding agenda. Even within his own criteria, then, Mr Gates's assessment is exuberant. He sidesteps the issue that many millions live in extreme poverty in relatively wealthy countries such as India , and bypasses global inequality - a recent Unicef study found that the top 20% of the world's population takes 70% of global income, and at current rates of change it will be more than 800 years before the poorest billion earn 10% of global income. And yet his broader themes chime with a growing appreciation of the inexorable if faltering global retreat of the human violence that inflicts so much of the world's poverty in the first place. Mr Gates's view resonates, too, with recent positive pronouncements from experts, including the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim , who are now inclined to discuss dates when world poverty will end, rather than debate whether such a goal is possible. It also fits a trend, popularised by the academic Charles Kenny , of recasting the doom-laden orthodoxy of the aid business. So while Mr Gates may be proved wrong on the detail, there is good reason for optimism - and good reason to spread it. As he points out, there is nothing so damaging to the cause of eradicating ill-health and poverty than the myth that we can't do anything to combat it.
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