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What's Blocking Progress for the Poor? Here Are Three Myths on Foreign Aid

Like many international organizations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation releases an annual letter, authored by Bill and Melinda Gates. ...


Like many international organizations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation releases an annual letter, authored by Bill and Melinda Gates. Rather than listing the foundation's trials, triumphs, and organizational priorities, this letter, released on January 21st, takes the form of a manifesto. While the goal of the foundation to end extreme poverty across the globe remains, this letter tackles three myths that hinder progress. Simply put: poor countries stay poor, foreign aid is a waste of money, and saving lives in the developing world just creates more need (mouths to feed).

Bill Gates begins the letter by saying, "… the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse. The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful." The letter is a strong charge to readers to join Bill and Melinda in taking apart these destructive myths.

Even by just looking at pictures of cities and neighborhoods across the world, it seems as though the global picture of poverty is being completely redrawn. Countries once considered poor, such as China, India, Brazil, and even Botswana, now have growing economies. Many countries that were historically recipients of aid are now self-sufficient, some even transforming into donor countries. Gates goes on to make the bold prediction that by 2035, there will be no more poor countries left.

People are living longer, healthier lives.

There is a class of nations in the middle that barely existed 50 years ago, and it includes more than half of the world’s population.

Even Bill Nye agrees.


A quick search on the internet will reveal that the foreign aid situation is quite grim. Countries are regularly criticized for not giving enough, corruption, mismanaging funds. It's easy to lose hope and to think that aid just doesn't work. But some would argue that more and more people are escaping poverty in part because of services that aid helped develop and deliver. According to Gates, what's worrying about the myth of aid being invaluable is that it could give political leaders an excuse to cut buck on it - essentially giving up before countries have the opportunity to become self-sufficient.

The Gates Foundation believes in aid. And thinks we should be doing more. GOOD was curious about the history of aid and spent some time looking at the history of aid triumphs. In December we released an infographic about nine stories of good aid.

Take a look at this graphic of some of the programs supported by the United States and other donor countries. It's pretty impressive.

The letter reads on to say, "As recently as the Cold War, American foreign policy experts theorized that famine would make poor countries susceptible to Communism. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives."

This was a welcome change. "We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering."


Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. "Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to secure a sustainable world. We will build a better future for everyone by giving people the freedom and the power to build a better future for themselves and their families."

The letter concludes with this charge, "we all have the chance to create a world where extreme poverty is the exception rather than the rule, and where all children have the same chance to thrive, no matter where they’re born. For those of us who believe in the value of every human life, there isn’t any more inspiring work under way in the world today."

To read the full and interactive version of the letter, check it out here.

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