Bill Gates is the first to admit he is one lucky guy.
The co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation is one of the richest men on earth. He has amassed billions of dollars over his lifetime thanks in no small part to a good education, some savvy business sense, and plenty of opportunities to pursue his dreams.
The technology sector provided him with incredible wealth and now he is on a new mission. Along with his wife and partner-in-philanthropy Melinda Gates, he is using that money to make a difference in the world.
“No one’s life should be a roll of the dice,” they wrote in an essay for The Atlantic magazine. “Were you born, as we were, with the odds in your favor? Or are you one of the billions of people born with the odds against you? Our goal is to even the odds for everyone.”
And that is why they are giving most of their fortune away.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up in 2000, is now the world’s largest private charitable foundation. With an endowment worth over 40 billion dollars, it spends more on global health projects alone each year than the World Health Organization.
As you might expect from a philanthropic endeavor started by two “computer nerds,” the work of the Gates Foundation is largely data driven — looking for the story behind the story, the trends that can lead to more effective giving.
That is why the foundation’s latest report is so fascinating to read and provides so much food for thought.
It is a report tracking compliance with an ambitious set of international development goals for 2030 set by the United Nations. Released just days before the start of a new General Assembly Session, it contains, well, both good news and bad.
The good news is, overall, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty is declining.
“There is universal progress — even in the most challenged countries, people are healthier and better educated than they used to be,” says the report.
The bad news is this progress is woefully uneven. The Foundation goes on to say:
“As we write, billions of people are projected to miss the targets that we all agreed represent a decent life. If we hope to accelerate progress, we must address the inequality that separates the lucky from the unlucky.”
The Gates Foundation wants to see more investment in the places that are falling farthest behind. It cites as an example the gap between Chad and Finland. It is closing but still “more children die every day in Chad than die in Finland in an entire year.”
And here is where the data comes in. Zoom in closer, down to the local level, and the picture gets even more complex.
This year, for the first time, the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers Data Repo includes statistics on individual districts in some of the poorest countries in the world. The Foundation crunched the numbers and found this inequality gap not only persists between countries, but within individual nations as well.
“Even in the worst-off parts of low-and low-middle-income countries, more than 99 percent of communities have seen an improvement in child mortality and schooling. Yet despite this progress, persistent gaps in opportunity mean that nearly half a billion people—about one in 15—still do not have access to basic health and education,” the report says.
And how do we go about closing these gaps?
One big way, according to the Gates Foundation, is to focus more on programs that help girls achieve their true potential.
In other words, gender inequality is holding countries back. And the report says no nation is immune.
“The developed world hasn’t fully solved the problem, and we know it’s important and we know we need to work on it,” Bill Gates told the Axios news service. “The gender issues are much worse as you get down into these poor countries.”
Or as the report puts it:
“Gender inequality cuts across every single country on earth. No matter where you were born, your life will be harder if you were born a girl. If you are born in a poor country or district, it will be even harder.”
This is an issue that Melinda Gates takes very personally.
She often tells the story of a trip she took to Africa a few years ago with her teenaged daughter Jennifer. They stayed with a family in rural Tanzania that included a son and daughter who were about to take their secondary school exams.
The boy was expected to pass easily but there were real concerns about the girl. Then Gates noticed the son was studying by a small fuel-powered lamp in the family home while the daughter was outside after sunset helping with chores.
The girl was about 13 and very shy but near the end of the visit, she walked directly over to Jenn, who had been wearing a runner’s headlamp in the dark.
“When you leave, can I have your headlamp so I can study at night, because I want to stay in school?” she asked.
They are words Melinda Gates has never forgotten… words that said so much about education and the desire to learn.
You can almost hear her voice dictating this headline in the report: “Gender Inequality Stacks the Deck for Half of Humanity.”
So how do you attack the problem? The report acknowledges it won’t be easy:
“Inequality, as we have said, is exceedingly complex. There is no silver bullet that will make geography, gender, and other random factors stop mattering. But guaranteeing that every single child has access to good health and education systems is a very good start in that direction. This is not just a moral aspiration; we believe it to be an achievable goal.”
In other words, you start with the basics: a greater focus on providing primary health care and access to schooling. And then you take on discrimination — the old cultural norms that hold girls back.
A lot of people are trying to fill in the blanks here and come up with creative new ideas to remedy this international “gender gap,” not just Bill and Melinda Gates. Around the world — in developed and developing countries — there are all kinds of efforts to tap the hidden potential of women and girls like that 13-year-old in Tanzania who needed a light to learn.
We are not there yet, but this report on fighting poverty says we are moving closer.
And whether or not you stand with everything the Gates family is trying to do with its private foundation, everyone can agree with their set of hopes for the future:
We all want a future where the odds are even for us all.