Some Thoughts After Reading the 2014 Gates Annual Letter

Bill and Melinda Gates just published their annual letter on poverty and as I was reading it this morning there were a lot of things going through my head. I think the letter is well-written and lays out some very good and very useful information, but there are spots where I think some additional clarification is needed; or at least places where I’d have more to say if it were my letter. Before reading my thoughts, I’d encourage you to check it out for yourself as I think it’s a good use of time. See: 2014 Gates Annual Letter.

Poverty Is Not Solely A Lack Of Fiat Money

ugandan shillingsOne of the biggest mistakes I see well-meaning, but uniformed westerners make is to measure poverty only in the context of whether someone earns a certain level of income (measured in fiat currency) each day. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that just because a dollar is only worth as much as the goods and services it can acquire. Here’s a basic example: In 1970, $1 would have bought you almost 3 gallons of gasoline for your car. In today’s economy, you can buy roughly 1/3 of a gallon of gasoline with $1. So if someone where to tell you that the number of people living on less than $1 per day has decreased two-fold in the last 20 years, it really doesn’t mean much. Instead, I believe it’s better to measure poverty by more than just money.  Access to clean drinking water, nutritious food, primary schooling, and medical care have to be factored in. Life expectancy and infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications systems, and schools are important considerations in measuring poverty as well. The point being is that we shouldn’t look at poverty merely as a matter of dollars and cents. Bill and Melinda do a pretty good job of highlighting this in their letter.

There Are Two Types Of Foreign Aid

Foreign aid is dispersed in essentially two ways: directly to governments or directly to people in need. In the case of aid to governments we often see governments transferring funds, supplies, troops, etc. to governments of other countries or by transferring these things through an international entity like the United Nations or NATO. In the case of direct aid to people in need, local governments are bypassed and aid is handed out straight to the people who need it. While international entities do this as well, a large portion of foreign aid is channeled through NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and NPOs (non-profits). The reality is that corruption happens with both. Financial aid is particularly vulnerable to local leaders and agencies exacting “commissions” on the aid that is sent over from wealthier countries. While it’s not the norm, Gates does a good job of acknowledging the existence of this problem in the letter. I also wholeheartedly agree that the existence of corruption shouldn’t be used as an excuse for doing nothing. The reality is that the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost of corruption. Furthermore corruption can be curtailed. I believe the best way to prevent it is to eliminate as many middlemen in the foreign aid process as possible. While it’s not practical for a concerned American to fly across the ocean to give a warm meal to a hungry child, that doesn’t mean that donating to a large agency via your cell phone carrier, who in turn, cuts a check to the US government who then cuts a check to an international governing body, who then cuts a check to an impoverished national government, who then cuts a check to a local precinct, who buys food from a farm and then hires a someone to distribute it is the best option either. Ideally, you want to research and support agencies who cut out as many steps to the aid process as possible.

Human/Sex Trafficking Is A Growing Global Menace

The Gates letter paints a fairly rosy picture of the world in the context of poverty. I don’t have a problem with that as I will certainly acknowledge that a ton of progress has been made in assisting those in need. However, glaringly absent from their letter was a discussion of human trafficking and the sex trade. Pinpoint whatever causes you want: a hypersexualized society, a shrinking middle class, desperation created by poverty, shrinking profits in drug smuggling, etc., the reality is that this is a growing menace to the human race. The reality is that poverty has created a disturbingly ample supply of people, particularly children and women, to be sold into modern-day slavery. Sometimes the head of a very poor household in a third-world country to sell a child into slavery to either be used for prostitution or hard labor. To put the magnitude of this problem in perspective, consider this: There are more people being trafficked around the world for commercial sex or forced labor today than the populations of Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia combined. That’s over 20 million people. Now I’m not here to smack you over the head with statistics, but I simply want to acknowledge that this is a growing problem that demands our attention and continue to do so until its confronted seriously.

Find Your Cause

I’ve said many times before that I don’t expect or demand anyone to join my cause. If they want to, I’m thrilled, but it’s entirely their choice. However, I do encourage people to find a charitable/missional cause they are passionate about and get involved in it. The reason for that is because I strongly believe that being involved with a cause takes our focus off of ourselves and directs it towards people in need. Often times, this process has a tendency of awakening people to other issues in our world that they can also become passionate about and/or invested in. My hope is that Bill and Melinda Gates’s letter and maybe even my blogpost, will encourage those who are currently sitting on the fence to get involved in something that tackles human suffering and makes the world a better place. If you’re reading this and have questions or want to bounce some ideas off me, leave a comment below or get in touch with me via my contact page. I’d love to help you.

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