Monday, January 27, 2014

A Pessimist's Response to Bill Gates

I am not a scholar nor an expert on aid, and actually find that debate tired and dull. Despite living and working in Liberia, I have not paid much attention to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Health, women's issues, diseases, and the other topics foremost in the Gates Foundation's efforts are probably the furthest outside of my orbit of familiarity and knowledge. My impression is that this type of work is both effective, and has seen enormous and commendable results in eradicating global epidemics and improving conditions for the world's poorest.

So, I was only half-aware that the couple issued a widely-distrubuted annual letter, so this year was the first time I read it.

What I read surprised me, and predominantly not for very positive reasons. The letter sets out to debunk several “Myths” about aid and development work that Bill and Melinda frequently encounter, which they find variously frustrating, baffling, and/or false.  As the letter begins, “By almost any measure, the world better than it has ever been,” and they feel anyone who thinks otherwise is misinformed and pessimistic.

I think I might be one of the people Gates is talking about, although I would qualify the label Those Who Think The World Is Getting Worse, more eagerly accepting an invitation into the club of Those That Are Worried That The World Might Run Out of Time Before Solving Civilization-Threatening Problems.

So, although I am no Chris Blattman, much less a Bill Easterly, I am writing this brief response to Mr. Gates Annual letter, not only as someone who may be a bit pessimistic about the world, but also as a reader surprised by the way the letter's arguments were framed, or more precisely, how the “myths” it calls out were characterized, and what evidence was used to refute them.

I don’t actually believe any of the myths that the letter seeks to debunk, but I do think the way the letter’s arguments are framed suggests a false choice between Believing the World Is Getting Worse and Supporting the Eradication of Extreme Poverty and Disease. It’s actually possible to both worry that many of the world’s problems may prove insurmountable, and being in favor of eradicating extreme poverty and disease as quickly as possible. In fact, it’s logical that one of the problem’s that pessimists are impatient about it’s the progress in alleviating extreme poverty.

According to the World Bank’s statistics from 2011, and excluding mainland China, the world’s poverty rate has only decrease by 10% from 1981 to 2005, with well more than a billion people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day, and the absolute number of people in abject poverty holding stubbornly steady for decades, as the world’s population has burgeoned. This is not just a problem in the least-developed world, by the way the total population of poor people in our own United States is at an all-time high. So there’s not very much to feel overly proud about.

Not too far into the letter, I was floored by the incorporation of juxtaposed pictures of Mexico City, Shanghai and Nairobi as proof of humanity’s progress. “These photos illustrate a powerful story: The global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn in my lifetime,” the letter states.

This statement may be true, but not in the way Gates intends it, I think: the concentration of wealth into a constellation of cosmopolitan enclaves does demonstrate a radical change in the picture of global poverty, but I doubt it reflects the high summit of human achievement. A panoramic view of Nairobi, Mexico City or Shanghai in 2014 would surely encompass more poor people between the picture plane and the vanishing point of the photo than an identical aerial shot from 1980. Also, a lot of those high-rises in Nairobi were built twenty- or thirty years ago. In short, I am baffled that this before-and-after stuff made the final edits of this letter.
Also included here is a little anecdote of Bill and Melinda’s visit to Mexico City in 1987 versus more recently, and how much nicer it was and how “everyone was middle class.” This is Tom Friedman column territory. 

The next section of the letter breezes through some statistics about income per person in some of the world's poor countries and how these have skyrocketed. I am astonished both that Gates puts forth per capita GDP as a stand-alone measure of progress and that the letter so casually equates per capita GDP to per person income, much less ignores the major contemporary issue of inequality. I say, tell that to the people of Gabon.

Oh wait, Gates actually uses Gabon as a supporting example for his case. Next to Equatorial Guinea, there is hardly a worse case of a nation that is wealthy per capita but scandalously under-developed in terms of human progress. Also, Gabon also only has 1.4 million people, or roughly the population of Hawaii.

Gates also repeatedly sites Botswana, which has about 2 million people, Mauritius, a small island with less than 1.3 million, and Singapore with its 5.4 million, and Costa Rica, with about 4.5 million. It might seem impressive to alphabetically list aid-free countries, but not so much when the population of half the list adds up to metro Los Angeles. Those ruled by hereditary kleptocrats are also not impressive when trying to convince us that we are living in an era of humanity’s unquestionable zenith.

Gates does mention corruption, but again conflates terminology in a way that is unhelpful. I know there are technical definitions of official corruption that basically mean, graft, but in the global corruption debate, the world also encompasses a wide range of theft and tax evasion. This is what pessimists are concerned about: the vast shadow world of hidden billions illicitly flowing out of every countries into elite centers and offshore havens. The example Gates provides, of a bureaucrat's phony expense report, falsely narrows people’s impatience with the fight against global corruption with henny-penny knitpicking over rounding errors on a spreadsheet of a single implementation project. I’ll skip the corruption tirade for now, and also spare conjecturing on reasons why Gates might avoid talking more broadly about corruption, but I wholly do not agree with Chris Blattman and others that those illicit acts that are associated with the term corruption have only minor and discrete effects on the development of mankind.

The last part of the letter is perhaps it’s most harmful and poorly reasoned.  I certainly hope that there aren’t armies of skeptics rooting for millions of the world’s poor to die to stave off overpopulation. But even if there are, it is hardly fair to lump people worried about overpopulation into the same grouping, or to dismiss them as “Malthusian.”

In the 21st century, it is simply irresponsible not to contemplate the absolute limit to the number of humans that this planet’s life-sustaining systems can support. While Malthus and his disciples may have gotten the number or timing wrong in the past, that doesn’t mean the general concept should be abandoned—or that we are already past the point of too many humans consuming too much of the planet’s finite resources.

Chief among the fears of the world getting worse are the questions of climate change, habitat loss, and overexploitation of the world’s natural provisions. People like me are worried about the plastic in the oceans, the loss of forests and glaciers.  Gates simply breezes through any concerns of this variety: he sees a future simply made of happier, more prosperous people, without addressing our century’s great conundrum: that only current model that we have to pull people out of poverty results in more pressure on the Earth’s natural habitats and systems.  That is an important and necessary concern.

People like me worry about humanity’s negative impact, and how we as a civilization evolve our economic and social systems past perpetuating destruction. Labelling people like me as a group who might prefer babies to starve to death is not just unhelpful but irresponsible. While I applaud the work of the Gates Foundation, and I am glad for their strong advocacy, this letter ignored more issues than it addressed, and invented more myths than it disproved.

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