Next year marks the 30th anniversary since Doc Brown introduced movie audiences to the flux capacitor. What's significant about that milestone is that 2015 was the year that Doc and Marty McFly were set to zoom off to in "Back to the Future's" final flourish. The scene teased our imaginations. Is that what our future holds in three short decades? Flying cars fueled by banana peels and beer? A world where "we don't need roads?"
Prognostications about what the future holds often fall short of expectations. Twenty years from now, one in 10 cars on the road are predicted to be driverless. Google's head of engineering says we'll have billions of red blood cell-sized computers swimming in our bloodstream. And a Russian multimillionaire thinks that human minds will be able to be transferred to computers, eliminating the need for our bodies. This is not to suggest that these predictions will not come to pass. But when they don't, they tend to reinforce our collective cynicism about such forecasts.
Just what or who are we to believe?
Well, Bill Gates, for one. And his wife Melinda. In the annual shareholder letter of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released recently, the couple made a confident prediction that has raised more than a few eyebrows and invited a chorus of cynics. They write: "By 2035, there will be almost no poor counties left in the world," and while "there will [still] be poor people in every region...most of them will live in countries that are self-sufficient."
The Gateses have certainly earned their bona fides to make such an assertion. They have immersed themselves intimately in the many complex, interrelated issues related to global poverty through their work with the Gates Foundation. And it is on the back of this undisputed credibility that they not only make this bold prediction, but they also persuasively address three myths related to the fight against global poverty, myths that they believe are perpetuating attitudes that are slowing down this important work.
The first myth is that poor countries are destined to remain poor forever. But Gates undercuts the legs of the myth with a statistic-laden broadside that demonstrates the incredible progress that has been made throughout the developing world, with countries like Botswana, Malaysia and Chile making enormous strides in per capita income in recent years. In the last quarter century, the percentage of very poor people has been cut by more than half, and within the next 25 years, more than 70 percent of the countries in South America, Asia and Central America will have higher per-person income than China has today. And the huge strides in health care and education that have been made in sub-Saharan Africa are laying the groundwork for continued progress there. The myth of perpetual poverty is being shattered in every part of the globe.
Nowhere is that more evident perhaps than through our own experiences in Taiwan and Korea, countries that were once recipients of aid but which now raise more than $100 million within their own borders to support ChildFund's efforts in those nations. They are proof positive of the transformational work that is happening.
The second myth is that foreign aid is wasteful, a myth that Gates fears gives political leaders an excuse to cut back on it. In fact, the less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget that is spent on foreign aid (about $30 billion), is helping build foundational changes in countries around the world: building schools, roads and irrigation systems, providing life-saving vaccines, family planning and other vital healthcare services. Foreign aid from the U.S. and many other nations has made the difference in reducing child-mortality rates, and in another 20 years, they are likely to fall to levels as low as those of developed nations. Beyond the savings in lives, foreign aid is an investment, helping developing nations achieve greater self-sufficiency. As the economies of these countries grow, the portion of their GNPs that rely on aid is greatly reduced, evidence that aid dollars are being invested wisely and with an eye on the future.
Melinda Gates addresses the third myth: that saving lives leads to overpopulation. The facts about this relationship may be counterintuitive, but it starts with the basic understanding that people in poor countries procreate at higher levels than those in developed countries. So it stands to reason that improving the economic conditions of poor people provides them with an incentive to reduce the size of their families, thus lowering and not increasing population growth.
Dispelling these myths is helpful, as is shining a spotlight on the incredible progress that has been made over the past few decades. Our collective work in helping to lift the world's poor out of poverty can often appear to those not paying close enough attention to be an undertaking with little to show for it. But Bill and Melinda Gates do us all a tremendous service by not only amplifying the enormous achievements we have helped to bring about over the past generation but also help remind us how close we are to creating a world where even the world's poorest children can dream with a sense of wonder about the future.