Grading Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter

It’s my second year, so this makes it a tradition. I take the conceit of grading it like one of my development class exams. But this year I do it in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

The letter makes a “big bet”, that technological breakthroughs—especially in vaccines, online education, agricultural extension, and mobile banking—will give the poor unprecedented opportunities.

An excerpt:

to preview, my overall grade is a B.

I have three reasons:

  1. Over-claiming: Making big steps sound like monumental leaps
  2. Providing solutions that will work best in the countries that will probably grow anyways
  3. Downplaying the harder barriers these breakthroughs won’t solve

In case you don’t feel like reading the whole long piece, here is the punchline: An ‘A’ grade for “what the world’s richest couple can reasonably do” but a ‘C’ for “delivers on the big bet”.

All the things we want from development–an end to extreme poverty and suffering–is synonymous with political stability, capable states, industry, and financial systems. I can’t see how a country gets from $1000 to $5000 a person (let alone $12000) without them.

The Gates’ priorities–disease eradication, online education, mobile banking, and agricultural inputs–simply don’t attack these fundamental elements of development. They take them for granted. Which means they apply to the countries already bounding ahead.

To their credit, the letter attacks the problems that an outside funder can actually achieve, and what the Gates Foundation does better than almost anyone else. This sounds like exactly what they should do. It’s why I admire them. But let’s not claim that a few new technologies can make unprecedented and fundamental changes in poverty in 15 years. They’ll make little, useful changes. That makes for a humbler, less exciting letter. But I think it’s the right one to write.

Read the full piece. And comments and corrections from the experts welcome.