By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years. Child mortality is plunging. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.
You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, and that people would rush to figure out what is working so well and do more of it. But they’re not, at least not in proportion to the progress. In fact, we’re struck by how few people think the world is improving, and by how many actually think the opposite—that it is getting worse.
We believe this is partly because many people are in the grip of several myths—mistaken ideas that defy the facts. The most damaging myths are that the poor will remain poor, that efforts to help them are wasted, and that saving lives will only make things worse.
We’ve heard the myth that poor countries are doomed to stay poor in lots of places, but most often about Africa. A quick Web search will turn up dozens of headlines and book titles: “How rich countries got rich and why poor countries stay that way,” “Why do the poor stay poor?” etc.
Thankfully these books are not bestsellers, because the basic premise is false. The fact is, incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa.
First, don’t let anyone tell you that Africa is worse off today than it was 50 years ago. Income per person has in fact risen in sub-Saharan Africa over that time, and quite a bit in a few countries. After plummeting during the debt crisis of the 1980s, it has climbed by two thirds since 1998, to nearly $2,200 from just over $1,300.
Today more and more countries are turning toward strong sustained development, and more will follow. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.
Africa has also made big strides in health and education. Since 1960 the life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years, despite the HIV epidemic. Without HIV it would be 61 years. The percentage of children in school has gone from the low 40s to over 75 per cent since 1970.
Fewer people are hungry, and more people have good nutrition. If getting enough to eat, going to school, and living longer are measures of a good life, then life is definitely getting better there. These improvements are not the end of the story; they’re the foundation for more progress.
Of course, these regional averages obscure big differences among countries. In Ethiopia, income is only $800 a year per person. In Botswana it’s nearly $12,000. You see this huge variation within countries too: Life in a major urban area like Nairobi looks nothing like life in a rural Kenyan village.
You should look skeptically at anyone who treats an entire continent as an undifferentiated mass of poverty and disease.
The bottom line: Poor countries are not doomed to stay poor. Some of the so-called developing nations have already developed. Many more are on their way. The nations that are still finding their way are not trying to do something unprecedented. They have good examples to learn from.
We’re optimistic enough about this that we are willing to make a prediction. By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Specifically, we mean that by 2035, almost no country will be as poor as any of the 35 countries that the World Bank classifies as low-income today, even after adjusting for inflation. Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbours and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution.
Their labour forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.
This is an excerpt from the Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2014 Annual Letter.