Bill and Melinda Gates on the 'single biggest determinant' of progress on the SDGs

Melinda and Bill Gates. Photo by: Monika Flueckiger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SEATTLE — Rapid population growth, particularly in Africa, represents the greatest threat to progress in reducing global poverty, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose founders are calling for greater investments in human capital to transform the youth bulge into a development opportunity.

“The reason we started our foundation is that current trends don’t have to continue,” Bill and Melinda Gates, the billionaire co-chairs of the largest private foundation in the world, wrote in their second annual Goalkeepers report, released on Tuesday. “We believe — and history proves — that poor countries can chart a new course by investing in their young people.”

The population on the African continent, where nearly 60 percent of people are under the age of 25, is expected to nearly double in size by 2050. Even as the percentage of people living in poverty decreases, the absolute number of people could begin to rise, the report notes. It outlines how investments in human capital — health, education, and opportunity, for example — equip young people to contribute to the growth of their economies.

These investments could increase the gross domestic product of countries in sub-Saharan Africa by 90 percent by 2050, according to the report. The world’s priority for the next three decades should be poverty reduction in Africa, Bill and Melinda Gates argue. Their foundation announced in 2016 that it would invest $5 billion in Africa over the next five years, building on $9 billion it has already invested on the continent.

“What happens to the large number of young people there will be the single biggest determinant of whether the world makes progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals,” the Gates wrote.

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Every year, the Goalkeepers report tracks 18 data points related to the Sustainable Development Goals, narrowing in on those the Gates Foundation is primarily focused on. This year’s report examines family planning, HIV, education, and agriculture in greater depth, outlining what they describe as positive outliers in addressing the challenge of a surging youth population. The report was released on the first day of the United Nations General Assembly, and next week Bill and Melinda Gates will co-host a Goalkeepers event in New York City during Global Goals Week.

In a meeting at the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, Mark Suzman, chief strategy officer and president for global policy and advocacy, spoke about some of the challenges of getting politicians to invest in their citizens’ human capital.

“No one disagrees with that in the abstract, but when you actually look at the resource allocation decisions made by developing country governments — how they use their World Bank loans or their own domestic finances — they tend to fall significantly short of even their own commitments,” he said.

Political leaders often prefer physical capital investments because the impact is immediate and easy to see, whereas in health, the investments are longer term, Suzman said. The Goalkeepers report points to the prevalence of stunting in children under the age of 5 who are likely to never fully recover. That has major implications not only for their health but for their countries’ future workforce.

The foundation is encouraging countries to ramp up their domestic financing in human capital, Suzman said, adding that within Gates’ own programs — including health, agriculture, and the newly launched global education portfolio — the foundation is exploring ways to ramp up its focus on youth.

“The choices that countries make now in terms of investments in their own people are going to have ramifications well beyond the 2030 deadline,” Suzman added, referring to the target date for achieving the 17 SDGs.

In the report, Alex Ezeh, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, referred to population issues as the elephant in the room when it comes to conversations about Africa.

“I think about the future of my continent in terms of three questions: Are Africans healthy? Do they have access to a good education? And do they have opportunities to apply their skills?” he wrote in an essay included in this year’s Goalkeepers.

Population issues are difficult to talk about, and there is a history of countries trying to control population through policies such as forced sterilization, so the development community began to ignore these issues and remove the word from its vocabulary, Ezeh argued. For the sake of Africa’s future, it’s time to bring population growth back into the conversation, with human rights at the center of the discussion about family planning, he wrote.

He emphasized that the goal of family planning is not to hit population targets, but rather to empower women, which also changes the population growth scenario across the African continent.

In a call with reporters last week, Bill Gates made a similar point, outlining what he sees as the two major benefits of investing in human capital in Africa.

“One is those kids are able to contribute fully and drive a lot of economic growth,” Gates said.

Second, “the patterns of behavior on a voluntary basis would be that the level of population growth would actually diminish, just like it has in so many other countries.”

The Goalkeepers report builds on a talk Bill Gates delivered this March in Abuja, Nigeria, where he spoke about the need to invest in human capital — the health, education, and skills of the population — in addition to physical capital or infrastructure.

“The most important choice you can make is to maximize your greatest resource: The Nigerian people,” he told audience that included the Nigerian president and other political leaders.

Progress on poverty has come in waves, write Bill and Melinda Gates, describing a first wave centered on China, a second wave centered on India, and then turning to the increasing concentration of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa,” they write.

They see positive examples. Ethiopia could follow China’s and India’s lead by reducing poverty and achieving growth. The East African country is projected to come close to eliminating extreme poverty by 2050.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about what happens if large numbers of young people in the poorest countries are denied opportunities to build better lives,” Bill and Melinda wrote.

“People worry about insecurity, instability, and mass migration. We wish they would also recognize young people’s enormous potential to drive economic growth.”

Update, September 18: This story was updated to clarify that the meeting with Mark Suzman took place at the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.