February 4

Jake Kendall and Rebecca Mann

Breaking Down Development Myths: Metrics and data demolishing poverty misconceptions

As you might have seen on Jimmy Fallon, Bill and Melinda Gates recently released the 2014 edition of their annual Letter. (Check out the “viral” video below).

This year, the theme of the correspondence was ‘Mythbusters’ – tackling the misconceptions and beliefs about development in the most powerful way possible: with data and real evidence. Bill and Melinda wrote about three myths that block progress for the poor, misconceptions they believe need to be conclusively debunked:

1. Poor Countries are Doomed to Stay Poor: It may often feel like good news stories about the developing world are few and far between, and that many countries seem to be getting worse off despite global efforts to eradicate poverty. However, Bill points to clear trends indicating that the world is rapidly transforming into a better place, and that cause for optimism regarding growth across developing countries is strong. In fact, he makes a bold prediction: by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. That is, almost all of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer just two decades from now. Bill argues that the data and evidence shows a global upward trajectory so clear that every nation in South America, Asia, and Central America (with the possible exception of Haiti), and most in coastal Africa, will have joined the ranks of today’s middle-income nations. This would be an incredible achievement, and one that should be rightly celebrated.

2. Aid is a Big Waste

There are a number of commentators who assert that aid has had a minimal effect on the lives of the poor, with well-meaning donors powerless to prevent the diversion of funds into the pockets of corrupt government officials. However, development assistance has generated real success stories, and Bill gives the example of polio to demonstrate. Since 1988, 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio, the number of polio-endemic countries has dropped from 125 to just 3, and the number of new polio cases each year has fallen from 350,000 to 400. It’s difficult to argue that these kinds of results can’t justify the $30 for every American, which is currently spent on aid for poor countries.

3. Saving Lives Will Contribute to Overpopulation and Make the World Worse for Everybody

Melinda, in the first year that she has co-authored the Annual Letter with Bill, explains why the link between saving the lives of children in the developing world and overpopulation of the planet is simple and intuitive, but wrong. We know from evidence stretching back decades and across continents that as child mortality declines, women will have smaller families and population growth inevitably slows. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birth rates has taken hold in almost every country in the world. In Southeast Asia and Latin America, for example, average fertility has dropped from six or seven children per woman to two or three in a single generation. So while overpopulation and associated environmental concerns are an important topic of debate, we also know that they cannot be a justification for us not to do our best to save children’s lives.

Our team works to promote financial innovation, which we believe can play a real role in helping achieve the ambitious goals that Bill and Melinda set out in the letter. By supporting financial services infrastructure that extends deep into poor and rural areas, we believe that the poor will ultimately be better able to withstand economic, environmental and medical shocks and to seize opportunities to build healthier and more productive lives. Contrary to the first myth, financial innovation can help developing countries reach middle-income status as Bill predicts. Financial innovation that digitizes government and donor payments may also mitigate corruption where it currently exists making aid programs more effective (relevant to the second myth on aid effectiveness).

As many myths about poverty and the poor continue to crumble, it’s time to build foundations of stronger narratives around what is working.

Jake Kendall and Rebecca Mann are program officers in the Financial Services for the Poor initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

aid agencies, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, financial inclusion, poverty alleviation