Africa: Aid Can Spur 'Historic Progress' - Bill Gates

interview

Photo: Gates Foundation
Farmers teaching farmers. Mwanaidi Ramadhani (left) is part of a local farmers’ organization in Mwasonge. Farmers like Mwanaidi have coached more than 1,800 farmers in Tanzania to grow this kind of sweet potato.

Bill and Melinda Gates, who co-chair the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, say that they are responding to a challenge from Warren Buffet by taking on "the really tough problems." They are optimists, they say, focusing on a few big goals and funding innovations, as they work with a variety of partners around the world.

In his fourth annual letter about the work of the foundation, Bill Gates covers a range of topics related to improving lives by reducing poverty, with a particular emphasis on the benefits of investing in agriculture. He links food scarcity to a number of development challenges, and the letter is an argument to wealthy nations – even in the midst of fiscal austerity – to make the choice "to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency".

On Wednesday, 25 January at the London School of Economics, Bill Gates will launch this year's letter at the inauguration of a Global Poverty Ambassadors project during a live webcast. Swedish public health scholar Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute, whose Gapminder Foundation illustrates complex data through imaginative, interactive graphics, will also argue the benefits of development assistance at the event.

AllAfrica's Tami Hultman talked by phone with Bill Gates about Africa, the letter, and the sources of his optimism.

Your letter links food scarcity to poor nutrition to higher rates of disease and death - and then notes that climate change could add further pressure on food security by reducing crop yields by as much as 25 percent. And you want to eradicate polio, deliver other life-saving vaccines, attack malaria, stem the tide of HIV - and attract funding for all these things. With so much to be done - and all of it inter-related - how is it possible to avoid discouragement and donor fatigue?

The key is to show the success stories. Certainly the state of the world - and the state of Africa - is far better today than ten years ago, fifty years ago. And there is a direct connection between aid generosity and government policies and those improvements.

One of my favorite books on this is Charles Kenny's "Getting Better" that talks about how improvements in literacy and health actually outdistance what the pure economic figures would say. That's not to discount economic growth - but over time, we've done even better than that one metric would indicate.

Malaria is a great story, with about a 20 percent reduction. HIV drug treatment is a good story. Even the agricultural story – although in the last decade we lost focus on it, and Africa has had nowhere near the benefit that big parts of Asia have had – to the degree that people have focused on agriculture, there are some good things that have happened.

So that's the one that I spend the most time on, because at a time when people are looking at what they do with their aid budgets, trying to get agriculture back at a higher level of funding is pretty important. You still have a billion people that haven't moved up their productivity level to have enough to eat, with all the negative consequences that has.

In your letter you discuss innovation - the necessity for it and the need to share it. How do you go about spreading the word about effective interventions, like the drought-resistant seeds I recently saw boosting crop yields in Kenya? How can strategies and mechanisms that work get communicated and replicated most efficiently?

One way you can do it is try to have market mechanisms where farmers hear the reputation of new seeds from each other and allow entry of new seed companies. Kenya has been particularly good on this. AGRA [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa], through our seeds program, is working with farmers, and a whole bunch of new seed companies have come in. Some of those seeds have developed really good reputations and are being used. A lot of African countries don't allow new seed entrants to come in, so particularly for the non-staple crops – fruits, vegetables, things like that –  the kind of innovation, the variety, the choice that should be there is not there.

For other things – like getting mothers to know how to treat newborns and getting them to seek out vaccination services – there we have to be innovative. With women's groups or radio, or other kinds of media approaches: how do you create that demand for innovative solutions, both in health and agriculture? Those are things that we continue to learn. And, of course, some things that work in one country may not work as well in another country.

To follow up on that, at AllAfrica we get a lot of announcements people send us, wanting us to tell the story about their initiatives, whether a better toilet or a cleaner cook stove. How can you combine forces to let market mechanisms work, so that the best kind of intervention can be adopted and scaled up to reach more people?

Well, we fund a lot of toilet-related work, and I have looked at the different stove-related things. Ideally, you would like to have vouchers in the hands of the people who need those things, and then they could look at which products meet their particular needs. Cook stoves is one area where there has been a fair bit of naiveté about what people are used to, in terms of how their food ends up tasting, or what cooking practices people are used to. So there have been a lot of things that haven't been that well adopted, just because they don't tend to meet the needs, or they tend to be out of the price range, even though some – in terms of fuel efficiency or health benefits – look very good on paper. That's been a tough one.

In the area of toilets, frankly most of the new designs really didn't solve the smell problem perfectly. So compared to the gold standard, which is the flush toilet, it has been very difficult. And there are all sorts of maintenance and servicing costs that come in – so, you picked two that are fairly difficult! You know, what you would like is to have the donors or someone who is neutral do the evaluation in terms of what the particular local needs are and then use the voucher program to get those things out there.

Fortunately, in the case of farming, the understanding of what is productivity is reasonably straight forward. So if you can get a critical mass of adoption, then you tend to get very good spread. Now you may have to be patient; you may have to pick the right people to be your pilot-type users. But there are great success stories – unfortunately more in Asia than in Africa –   because there were better seeds. But there are lots of great stories where seeds did get very high uptake over a five-year period.

This all leads into the role of research and science and science education. The new seeds being used in Kenya's Machakos area are produced locally. What do you think is the role of African science education and African researchers doing science in Africa, adapted to local conditions and sensibilities?

In the long run, that is what you have to have, because they know what the particular needs are. So if you look at the relative lack of success in African agricultural productivity increase versus Asian, this education thing is one of many factors that you would look at. We've got, through Agra, a couple of PHD programs; one at the University of Kwazulu Natal and another in Ghana, that are going to start to turn out, over the next five years, some meaningful numbers.

We have a huge effort to work with African scientists. I highlight [in the letter] Joseph in Tanzania, who is doing cassava work. I was just down in Australia seeing some banana work – and the key to the success of that is people in Uganda and the national agriculture research organization there, who partnered up on that banana project. So, fortunately, there is a generation now that hopefully will become role models, and the young generation will come along and learn from the very modest number of senior agricultural experts that Africa has today.

You opened your letter by saying that 15 percent of the world's population lives in extreme poverty compared to 40 percent 50 years ago – which by some calculations represents a decline in absolute numbers of the very poor, despite a doubling of population.

One amazing statistic is that China is a huge part of that. In other words, there would be more people living in poverty today if China hadn't done such a very good job. The numbers are unbelievable, because they went from having about 75 percent of their population in poverty to now under 10 percent. There are things that aren't perfect, but in terms of poverty, that is a very amazing story.

Sadly, Africa, because of its high population growth and relative lack of progress, is the continent that has more people who face malnutrition and poverty than in the past – a smaller percentage, but a higher absolute number. That is unacceptable, no matter what is going on with financial issues up in the north. I am arguing that cutting back the aid that is going to enable that to change – that shouldn't happen.

So you end your letter by saying that you are going to spend the next year spreading the word that modest investments in development can improve the lives of billions of people. You've just cited challenges in Africa. How can you make the case compelling that Africa, too, can reduce poverty?

There are great success stories going on in Africa. The last decade in Africa has been pretty good. You always have the problem that bad news is more of a headline than good news. So as people in the West are reading about Africa, they are reading about Sudan instead of the relative progress that is taking place that's very gradual, one day at a time.

In a country like Kenya, which has certainly had its fair share of difficulties, there have been a lot of good things going on in both agriculture and health. You know, part of our goal is to get more people to come and visit and see the progress.

My wife Melinda was just in Tanzania 10 days ago with six United States senators, and the most impactful part of that visit was talking to a woman farmer. They noticed she had no electricity, no running water, and yet when they asked her: "What would you do if you had more productivity," she thought that was a silly question – because it was obvious that she wanted to be able to pay her children's school fees and get her kids more education. She wasn't going to spend the money on getting running water or electricity!

So I think people have to see the sense of commitment and what it looks like when it works. In health work, the Global Fund [to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria], is an overwhelming success story. The very small percentage of corruption – that they did a good job to spot – has become more the impression of what's going on with Global Fund than the fact that 95 percent of the money is saving millions of lives in their target diseases.

We have a real communications challenge that we have to rise to. Sometimes donors may think that they are not getting the proper appreciation for the aid [they give]. So it's tough. We need to make sure that they feel better about that and really assure them that we are getting smarter about how it's spent and its impact, a lot of which is health and agricultural work. If people think of Africa as a whole, they might just think about the toughest parts, and you know better than I that there is incredible variety, including a lot of great progress.

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