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Patricia McGuire Headshot

Bill Gates' Rose-Colored Glasses

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Bill Gates must own the most advanced pair of rose-colored glasses in all of history. Being the richest man in the world (or second riches, depending on the daily wealth value race with Carlos Slim Helu) means never having to see the world through the dirty, shattered lenses that color reality for the majority of the world's population. In a statement this week that is just stunning for its hubris and insensitivity to the suffering people of our planet, Gates declared, "By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world."

Setting the stage for the annual hangout with other wealthy moguls at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates addressed three "myths" that allegedly "block progress for the poor" of this world. Toto, let's go over that rainbow! If we'd just stop letting those darn pessimists fuss about so many poor people (listen up, Pope Francis!), then we could all see that poverty is actually a relic of the pre-Microsoft era, just like landline phones and Number 2 pencils.

Coincidentally, on the same day that the Gates pronouncement on the end of poverty came out, those pesky people at Oxfam released their own pre-Davos report that offered this stark fact: 85 people on Earth (starting with you, Bill Gates!) have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people.

Bill Gates doesn't seem to think much of the Oxfam study. In an interview broadcast for The Economist, when asked about the wealth disparity report, he said, somewhat dismissively, that "the poor are not getting poorer" and that his wealth should not really be counted in the way Oxfam counts it, because his wealth is being used to help eliminate poverty. If you keep believing what's bad, he says in essence, you'll never see what's good.

To his credit (let's be fair here), Gates is a remarkable philanthropist, and his generosity certainly sets a bold standard for all wealthy people to emulate. His apparently boundless enthusiasm for the "end of poverty" narrative seems to be, in part, calculated to stimulate more significant philanthropy by others who can also make the kind of difference the Gates Foundation has made in some places. He points to investments in vaccines that reduce childhood mortality by eliminating or effectively treating polio, malaria and AIDS. Bravo for all of that!

Nevertheless, Gates' rose-colored glasses actually make him appear to be blind to the genuine suffering of people who endure poverty, even in the wealthiest countries on Earth. He holds up China as an example of a country that epitomizes escape from poverty without so much as mentioning the appalling human rights abuses that persist in China, or the fact that the wealth of the technology industry, the source of his own riches, developed in part through the exploitation of cheap labor in unsafe conditions in China's factories.

In the United States, the Gates Foundation has played a very large role in the education reform movement. But while Gates seeks to address poverty and its evil cousins of disease and malnutrition elsewhere, in the U.S. the foundation largely supports school reform tactics that blame teachers and close schools while ignoring the real consequences of poverty on the ability of children to learn. We might wish that Gates would attack hunger and disease right here in the U.S.

Here in the District of Columbia, the capital of the wealthiest nation on Earth, poverty remains one of the great obstacles to student success in elementary, secondary and collegiate education. More than one quarter of the children of this very wealthy city live in poverty, and many are hungry and homeless. No amount of standardized testing in the world, no teacher-quality-improvement program, no aggressive program of shutting down neighborhood schools can truly fix the fundamental problems that arise when impoverished children are hungry, homeless, sick and untreated, neglected, afraid, abused, often left to fend for themselves by single parents who are, often, barely out of childhood themselves. I sure wish that some of that money the Gates Foundation ploughs into consultants on school reform could, instead, fund more child care centers in the impoverished wards of the city, more health clinics and literacy programs for parents so that more could actually read to their kids each day.

In a CBS News interview, Gates said that we focus too much on the tornado and don't pay enough attention to the success all around us. I wonder if he can understand how callous his cockeyed optimism sounds to the people who often had very little to start with, now suffering total devastation in the wakes of the tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, floods, hunger, oppression, genocidal wars, terrorists and tyrants all over the world.

Bill Gates has devoted his post-Microsoft life to doing good on this Earth. But his good intentions and powerful stature on the world stage seem to blind him to the realities of persistent poverty in the real lives of ordinary people every single day. He needs to leave his rose-colored glasses on that mountaintop in Davos in order to improve his vision and understanding of real life in the struggling corners of our global village. Maybe then he could see the reality of the lives of the 3.5 billion people on the other side of the mountain.