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Ambition and focus: the Gates Letter 2015

By Abigail Rotheroe 30 January 2015

It is that time of year again. No, not when you abandon those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, but when Bill and Melinda Gates publish their annual letter.

This is the seventh letter since the Gates Foundation began in 2000, and as usual it makes for interesting reading. The timing coincided with The World Economic Forum—where the great and the good descend on Davos with a commitment to ‘improving the state of the world’—providing an additional platform for laying out their plans for the next 15 years of the foundation.

Bill and Melinda are optimistic about the future, predicting breakthroughs that include: halving the rate of infant mortality; Africa feeding itself through improved agricultural productivity; mobile banking helping the poor make the most of their money; and better software to revolutionise learning.

I like these. While they are undoubtedly ambitious, they don’t require the complete suspension of belief. For they are not outside historical experience: philanthropists have helped make this level of change happen in the past. As the 2015 letter says, in 1990 one in ten children died before the age of five. Today this figure has improved to one in 20. To get to one in forty, the gradient has to be maintained, which could be possible with continued development of vaccines, greater coverage for these vaccines, and better hygiene—not to mention better nutrition from improvements in agriculture.

Bill and Melinda’s letter is also providing a steer for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These goals will replace the popular and successful Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that expire this year. The MDG were admirably brief—there were just eight of them (and 18 targets), and they caught the millennia zeitgeist. But the SDG are shaping up to be quite different. The current draft has 17 goals and 169 targets, possibly borne of a more inclusive process involving more stakeholders and interest groups. The SDG’s number one goal is to ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’, so the ambition remains—but the road to get there is a more winding one.

There is still time to reduce and refine these before they are finalised in September, and I hope they do. Pushing people to engage with so many goals can be tough, and we badly need global engagement. As Bjorn Lomborg of the Post 2015-Consensus points out, they will influence the dispersion of up to $2.5 trillion in international development assistance in the next fifteen years.

Bill and Melinda have a crucial advantage. They don’t have to bring along 193 governments when they develop their goals. In this they have learned a key lesson for international philanthropists: to focus their giving and their leadership in a way that achieves maximum impact. Goal-setting is a difficult business, as the SDG process will show over the next few month. Sometimes less is more—although I suspect this sentiment is rather more elusive among the rich and the influential in Davos.

This article originally appeared in Spear’s magazine here.