Decades of progress in the global war against poverty could stall as population growth surges in some of the world’s poorest regions, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation warns in a new report that calls for boosting investments in health and education in Africa.
The annual Goalkeepers Data Report tracks progress across the globe on 18 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including child and maternal deaths, access to contraceptives, malaria rates and sanitation.
Timed for release as world leaders convene at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, the report also is released as First Lady Melania Trump prepares for her first trip to Africa next month. Her visit could be a valuable assist, Bill Gates told reporters on a conference call.
“It’s fantastic when we can get as many of the people who are thinking about these issues, who can bring visibility to these issues, to visit Africa,” said Gates, who noted that the first lady’s visit comes on the heels of recent tours by German chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Whenever these trips are taking place we do our best to make sure that some of the challenges and some of the progress gets highlighted,” Gates said.
The foundation report argues that gains in lifting millions out of persistent poverty in China and India could be eclipsed by burgeoning birth rates in the poorest countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa,” Bill and Melinda Gates write in the report. “To continue improving the human condition, our task now is to help create opportunities in Africa’s fastest-growing, poorest countries.”
According to the report, the continent’s population is projected to nearly double in size by 2050. More than 40 percent of the extremely poor will live in just two countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.
Trump’s Africa visit will be her first solo international trip. The White House has not yet announced her itinerary, but Trump said in a written statement that she’s interested in learning about the issues that confront children living on the continent. She said she also looks forward to highlighting successful humanitarian work and development programs.
The first lady, who has sought to highlight the well-being of children, plans to travel without President Donald Trump, who was roundly criticized for using the word “shithole” to refer to several countries, including some in Africa.
SInce its launch in 2000, the foundation established by the Microsoft founder and his wife has invested more than $15 billion in projects relevant to Africa. The foundation has also been active in Central and South America and the Caribbean, including supporting efforts in Haiti to combat tropical diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis.
Gates said he is optimistic that the world can continue to make gains, despite dire warnings in the report.
One billion people have escaped poverty in the last 20 years, Gates said, much of that thanks to the so-called Green Revolution, which sparked an increase in the production of high-yielding wheat and rice that allowed many developing countries to stave off hunger and poverty.
“You need the equivalent of the Green Revolution so that Africa can feed itself and improve its nutrition, and the economic effect with that extra production will allow labor to move into other sectors,” Gates said. “The basic approach that worked in other places, with appropriate local modifications, is why I’m hopeful about the challenges.”
The report is not sparing in describing the challenges. It notes that poverty in the African countries is “rooted in violence, political instability, gender inequality, severe climate change, and other deep-seated crises” and is tied to other problems, including high rates of child mortality and malnutrition.
“As a result, today’s poorest people have significantly fewer opportunities than most of the billion people who escaped poverty during the first two waves,” the report says.
But it notes bright spots in many African countries. Ethiopia, “once the global poster child for famine,” is projected to almost eliminate extreme poverty by 2050. Rwanda, once ravaged by genocide, has built an effective health system, resulting in what the report says is the “steepest drop in child mortality ever recorded.”
Gates said the report, which was produced in partnership with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, is aimed at making the case for investment in Africa to world leaders.
“The particular challenge of the population growth in Africa leads to a simple idea that the world should help Africa invest in its human capital, and that means both the health and the education of this young generation,” Gates said.
He said the effort would pay for itself with young people able to create economic growth and slow the continent’s birth rate. The report, which includes case studies of various approaches in health and education, estimates that investments in health and education, or “human capital,” in sub-Saharan Africa could increase the gross domestic product in the region by more than 90 percent by 2050.
“If those investments are made, you get two kinds of amazing effects,” Gates said, noting that lifting health and education standards would also lead to a drop in population growth “just like it has in so many other countries.”
Population growth has been a controversial topic because some countries tried to control growth with “abusive, coercive policies, including forced sterilization,” Alex Ezeh, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development writes in the report. But he says it should be considered with the goal of empowering women so that they can choose when, if and how many children they will have.
The foundation, along with the U.S. government, is one of the biggest investors in global health and education efforts, said Sara Allinder, deputy director and senior fellow in the global health policy center at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The foundation’s focus on the burgeoning youth population in Africa and on improving health and education could be critical, she said.
“We know there’s going to be a doubling of the youth population (in Africa) and there is an opportunity now to get ahead of that surge and capture the demographic dividend, as opposed to not paying attention” and ending up with further instability, Allinder said.
The report, issued for the first time in 2017, charts progress made on a host of fronts, but also projects what could happen if the U.S. and other countries were to scale back foreign aid. Last year’s report was issued as the Trump administration recommended slashing foreign aid and Gates said he was relieved that Congress refused to go along and kept funding levels stable.
“One of most strategic things there is, is to try and help Africa make this transition to middle income status,” Gates said. “The big question is will this generation have the investments made in them?”