Bill and Melinda Gates have released their annual letter, which has increasingly become a key inflection point for the international development community. The organizing theme of this year’s letter is the refutation of three big myths that often pop up in discourse about international development and foreign aid. The Gateses identify those “myths” as 1) Poor countries are doomed to stay poor; 2) Foreign aid is a big waste; 3) Saving lives leads to overpopulation.
The whole letter is worth a read. I found the section about myth 1 to be most interesting. Bill Gates makes a bold prediction: in 21 years, there will be no more poor countries.
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.
I am optimistic enough about this that I am willing to make a prediction. By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. (I mean by our current definition of poor.)2 Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.
A few countries will be held back by war, politics (North Korea, barring a big change there), or geography (landlocked nations in central Africa). And inequality will still be a problem: There will be poor people in every region.
But most of them will live in countries that are self-sufficient. Every nation in South America, Asia, and Central America (with the possible exception of Haiti), and most in coastal Africa, will have joined the ranks of today’s middle-income nations. More than 70 percent of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today. Nearly 90 percent will have a higher income than India does today.
It will be a remarkable achievement. When I was born, most countries in the world were poor. In the next two decades, desperately poor countries will become the exception rather than the rule. Billions of people will have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The idea that this will happen within my lifetime is simply amazing to me.Some people will say that helping almost every country develop to middle-income status will not solve all the world’s problems and will even exacerbate some. It is true that we’ll need to develop cheaper, cleaner sources of energy to keep all this growth from making the climate and environment worse. We will also need to solve the problems that come with affluence, like higher rates of diabetes. However, as more people are educated, they will contribute to solving these problems. Bringing the development agenda near to completion will do more to improve human lives than anything else we do.
There are 36 countries in the world that the World Bank classifies as “Low income.” This means that the Gross National Income per capita is $1,035 or less. For Bill Gates’ prediction to become true the following countries will have to move up the income ladder:
For comparison, the following 48 countries are considered one step up the poverty ladder. These are considered “lower middle income” and the Gross National Income per capita is between $1,036 and $4,085.
You have to admire Bill Gates’ hard-nosed optimism. If in 21 years a country like Niger could be classified as Vietnam is today, humanity will have made immense progress in the long fight against poverty.