If world news has been getting you down lately, you need to read this. It’s a perfect, breathtakingly provoking reminder of why we should be optimistic rather than pessimistic.
Here’s what you need to know: In 2006, the billionaire Warren Buffett donated the bulk of his fortune – a staggering USD$30 billion – to the Gates Foundation, a private foundation started by Bill and Melinda Gates to enhance global health and reduce poverty and inequity in the world. The sum they received, write the Gates’, was “the biggest single gift anyone ever gave anybody for anything”.
A decade later, in their annual letter, Bill and Melinda reflect on the magnitude of that gift and how it has changed the world for the better.
Reading it, you’ll realise there’s no reason to be pessimistic about the world. These are the reasons why.
Less children are dying every year
Every September, the UN announces the number of children who died before their 5th birthday in the past year. It’s a depressing statistic, but every year that number gets smaller and smaller. Every year, less children die than the year before.
Saving children’s lives is the heart of the Gates Foundation’s work. It’s what drives their tireless actions as they strive to achieve the advances in nutrition, education, access to contraceptives, gender equity, and economic growth that they know will increase the chances of a child living past their fifth birthday.
Isn’t that amazing? Child mortality is declining much faster than models had previously predicted. And that means something must be causing it; something is saving all those children.
Which brings us to our next point.
More children are vaccinated now than ever before
Vaccination is the largest cause for the decrease in child mortality. It saves lives. Now, 86% of children receive basic vaccination. In the entire history of the world, this is the highest this number has ever been. And it’s because the poorer countries are finally, finally catching up with the richer countries in terms of vaccination rates. Note the drastic increase in the last 20 years.
Vaccination rates in poor countries were so low prior to this because families literally could not afford them. To remedy this, the Gates foundation worked to incentivise pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines and drive their prices down. Thanks their efforts, 580 million children have been immunised worldwide. And a vaccine that protects against five deadly infections now costs under USD$1.
One of the goals of the Gates Foundation is to ensure that there is zero difference in the health of a child from a poor country and a richer one. Cheaper vaccinations is the best way to reach that goal.
But for all these improvements, there is still work that needs to be done. Namely, in the fields of newborn mortality, women’s rights, and most importantly, optimism. Here’s what we need to work on.
Every year, 1 million babies die on the day they are born
The thought that each year, a million babies don’t live for longer than 24 hours seems preposterous and so deeply depressing. Of all these deaths, more than half are a result of sepsis and other infections; suffocation; and from being born too early.
How to treat or prevent these deaths is a problem health experts have been struggling with for decades, with little to show for it. But then the Gates came across an interesting statistic. In the last nine years, the newborn mortality rate in Rwanda has dropped by 30% despite Rwanda being one of the poorest African countries. If it wasn’t wealth, what was Rwanda doing right?
As it turns out, surprisingly cheap and easy things: Encouraging mothers to breastfeed in the first hour and exclusively for the next six months; hygienically cutting the umbilical cord to prevent life-threatening infections; and most interestingly, encouraging mothers to hold their babies against their skin during their first few months. This simple, sweet act keeps the baby warm, stabilises its heart rate, improves its brain development and chances of survival.
The Gates Foundation is now working on research to discover more life-saving practices, and to determine why babies die. Because you can only prevent a death if you know what causes it.
Nearly half of all child deaths are caused by malnutrition
45% to be exact. Malnourished children, deprived of vital nutrients at the most crucial times of their life, are more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia or diarrhea. Malnourished children are also more likely to die from them. And what’s worse: where malnutrition doesn’t kill, it destroys human potential. Malnutrition physically and mentally stunts a child, and this limits them for the rest of their lives.
Yet only 1% of foreign aid goes to basic nutrition. The Gates’ describe it as “the biggest missed opportunity in global health.” And so they continue to advocate for nutrition, funding research to identify how to improve it and encouraging governments to do the same. When they do figure out how to solve the problem of malnutrition, it will restore the potential to all the children who would have missed out otherwise. These children, they write, will change the world.
Not enough women in the developing world have access to modern contraceptives
Babies are more likely to survive past their first birthday when their mothers space their pregnancies apart. For a woman to do this, she needs contraception. In that sense, writes Bill, contraceptives, like vaccines, are one of the greatest lifesaving innovations in history.
When women can control when to have children, they are also more likely reach higher levels of education and income. This in turn means parents will have more time and money to spend on ensuring their children are healthy and educated. And this has a huge impact on a society. When Melinda took it upon herself to investigate the link between contraception and poverty, she made a sobering discovery: “No country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives.”
Contraceptives are powerful tools of social improvement. But the challenge lies in increasing access to contraceptives in the developing world and also to educate people on their lifesaving, poverty-ending power.
Women in poor societies are suffering
Everyone suffers in a poor society, but women even more so. The poorer the society, the less power a woman has. It’s a vicious cycle: women in poor societies are locked out of opportunities, but losing out on the contribution of women (half their population) makes a society stay poor. When women have the same opportunities as men, families and societies thrive, write the Gates.
With this in mind, they are determined to bring about social change by empowering women by getting them to talk to each other in support groups. Thanks to their efforts, 75 million women in India are now involved in groups that help them financially, medically, and emotionally.
We think that’s fantastic.
And that brings us to our final point:
The case for optimism
Confronted by these statistics, it easy to lose hope and grow jaded with the state of the world. In fact most people are– 99% of people believe that poverty is getting worse when in fact, it has halved since 1990. If this continues, by 2030 not a single person will be living in extreme poverty. That’s amazing.
It’s a reminder that there is no reason sink into pessimism. We must not treat disappointments as evidence of a worsening world. You must remember, Bill and Melinda emphasise, that the world is now a better place to live in that it has ever been. Poverty and child mortality are decreasing, and literacy, and the rights of women and minorities rights are improving. In these times, we should resist getting swept up in baseless sentiment and instead look at what the facts tell us. And that is: we should be more optimisitic ever.
We must be optimistic, because optimism is more than a blind belief that things will get better.
It’s a conviction that we can make things better.
And, as the Gates letter has demonstrated, that makes all the difference.
If you’ve been inspired by the work of the Gates Foundation and wish to help save children’s lives, they encourage you to make a donation to UNICEF.