Bill and Melinda Gates warn ‘stunning progress’ toward reducing global poverty could stall for first time in decades

Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates visiting women in Jamsaut village in Bihar, India. (Gates Foundation Photo)

Since 1990, the percentage of people around the world living below the extreme poverty line has dropped from 36 to 9. That is a major accomplishment but demographic trends across the globe show that progress toward reducing poverty could be on the verge of stalling.

That’s according to the annual Goalkeepers report published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation, in partnership with the University of Washington, takes a thorough look at 18 key metrics of quality of life in countries around the world. It’s part of an effort to track progress toward collective goals like decreasing childhood mortality, financial participation, and access to family planning resources.

“To put it bluntly, decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,” Bill and Melinda Gates say in a letter included in the report. “This is because 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.”

Helping those countries harness the potential of their booming youth populations is the theme of the 2018 Goalkeepers report.

“We’re really highlighting this human capital challenge and how that can be done well,” Bill Gates said on a press call. “It’s really the centerpiece of this report.”

Providing financial aid to help countries invest in education and healthcare for their young people has two main benefits, according to Gates. First, healthy and well educated young people tend to drive innovation and economic activity, which can help countries with fewer resources grow.

Second, trends show that when young people have access to contraception, quality education, and obtain a level of financial independence, birth rates drop naturally. The Goalkeepers report holds up China and India as two examples of these changing dynamics and the potential for investing in human capital.

“The extreme poverty number came down by over 1 billion over the last 20 years and interestingly, if you look at the world as a whole, the actual number of births in the world is quite flat,” Bill Gates said. “But underneath that, you see there’s a shift in the births from some of the richer countries into a lot of the more developing countries.”

The Gates Foundation believes that strategic investments in health care and education can move the needle in poverty-stricken countries. For example, resources could toward reducing childhood health complications that can lead to developmental problems or early education that puts young people on a path to participate in the modern economy. Investments like these are particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa, which is projected to be home to 86 percent of people living in extreme poverty by 2050, according to the report.

“The conclusion is clear,” the Gates letter says. To continue improving the human condition, our task now is to help create opportunities in Africa’s fastest-growing, poorest countries.”

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