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raceAhead: Bill and Melinda Gates Sound The Alarm on Poverty

September 19, 2018, 6:12 PM UTC

Bill and Melinda Gates released their second annual Goalkeepers Data Report yesterday, and raised new alarms about the future of the work to end hunger, poverty, inequality, and increase global health.

Their opening essay asks, “Is Poverty Inevitable?”

“We usually express our optimism by highlighting some of the recent mind-blowing improvements in the human condition—like the fact that advances in medicine have saved 50 million lives just since we started our foundation in 2000. We believe it’s worth repeating that until we’re blue in the face,” they begin.

Then they ripped the needle from the record.

“To put it bluntly,” they say, “decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling — the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life. If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.”

The report tracks eighteen data points that are part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015, and designed to offer an annual snapshot of the progress to meet specific goals by 2030. The report is the kickoff to a now annual Goalkeepers event, which the Gateses will host in New York on September 25 and 26.

You can download it here. It is in many ways, a short course in sustainable development.

While extreme poverty has decreased overall, it is becoming concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, which suffers further from an underinvestment in the health and education of the younger population – which includes, pointedly, investments in the status of women and their reproductive health.

On page 15, you’ll find an inspiring report from Kenyan writer Abigail Arunga on Future Fab, a three-year pilot program designed to de-stigmatize conversations about teen sexual health. “Adolescents in Nairobi have little to no information about sex because everyone pretends they’re not having it,” she writes. The answer was to create a lifestyle brand, complete with a magazine and events, that helps teen girls envision a bright future for themselves while explaining how unplanned pregnancies will derail their dreams. Contraceptive use among participants increased by 50 percent.

But as was the case last year, a shifting political landscape threatens to slow the work.

“For example, President Trump’s budget released last May would shrink U.S. commitments to funding overseas HIV programs, among other efforts important to the Gates Foundation,” says Julian Wyllie in The Chronicle on Philanthropy, who called the report, “sobering.

And then there is politics as usual.

In a call with reporters, Bill Gates pointed out that all governments have a role to play. “In Nigeria, the overall level of government tax collection is the lowest in the world, and so the resources that are available to invest look to be much lower than you need across the various functions of government,” he said. “You have to both raise the revenue and raise the quality to get the impact.”

Throw in global conflict, climate change, and the rise of movements hellbent on rolling back progressive policies, and it paints a picture of progress in real peril.

But they end on the kind of positive note that’s become the drumbeat for so many business executives re-thinking how they impact the world: Focus on the power of innovation. Vaccines and bed nets are widely available, they say by example, and thanks to technology that didn’t exist a decade ago, some 1.2 billion people now have access to a bank account.

If it’s hard to picture young people, properly supported, lifting themselves out of poverty, they say,“…the weakness is in our imagination, not the young people.”

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It is now clear that we’ll never get to gender equality in the workforce, and we’ll never get to a place where men and women can really realize their potential in our economy, if they’re constantly being forced to make impossible choices between caring for the people they love or going to work. Universal basic income, universal family care, and a new framework for workers to have a voice, these are all pillars that need to be redesigned to fit today’s economy.
Ai-jen Poo