Bill and Melinda Gates: Aid Mythbusters

For some reason, people do not know how much the world continues to improve. Bill and Melinda Gates took to the Wall Street Journal to bust a few myths and show that a lot of assumptions held by Americans are just plain wrong.

The two leaders of the Gates Foundation are set to publish their annual letter, timed to coincide with world leaders meeting in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, tomorrow. The WSJ OpEd looks to be a preview of what is to come. In the piece, the Gates refute the notion that aid is wasteful and ineffective.

Here are the highlights from each of the myths:

Poor countries are doomed to stay poor.

They’re really not. Incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere—including Africa…

In our lifetimes, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the U.S. was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there. So is Gabon. Since 1960, China’s real income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half the world’s population.

And yes, this holds true even in Africa. Income per person in Africa has climbed by two-thirds since 1998—from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.

Foreign aid is a big waste.

Actually, it is a phenomenal investment. Foreign aid doesn’t just save lives; it also lays the groundwork for lasting, long-term economic progress…

One common complaint about foreign aid is that some of it gets wasted on corruption—and of course, some of it does. But the horror stories you hear—where aid just helps a dictator build new palaces—mostly come from a time when aid was designed to win allies for the Cold War rather than to improve people’s lives.

The problem today is much smaller. Small-scale corruption, like a government official who puts in for phony travel expenses, is an inefficiency that amounts to a tax on aid. We should try to reduce it, but we can’t eliminate it, any more than we can eliminate waste from every government program—or from every business, for that matter. Suppose small-scale corruption amounts to a 2% tax on the cost of saving a life. We should try to cut that. But if we can’t, should we stop trying to save those lives?

We’ve heard plenty of people calling to shut down aid programs if one dollar of corruption is found. But four of the past seven governors of Illinois went to prison for corruption, and no one is demanding that Illinois’s schools be shut down or its highways closed.

Saving lives leads to overpopulation.

It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births too.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birthrates started to drop. In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to having just two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the U.S., and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for the vast majority the world.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.