"There are not many more contested abstractions in the contemporary world than progress. Are things getting better? Fast enough? For whom?
Those questions are, in a somewhat singular way, tied symbolically to Bill Gates. By objective standards among the most generous philanthropists the world has ever known, Gates is seen more and more by critics, in a time of intensifying income inequality, as a creature of the Pollyannaish plutocracy — with the billions given each year by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation perhaps more significant as a symptom of the world’s problems than a potential solution. Even a partial one.
In 2015 the United Nations established 17 sustainable development goals — measurable benchmarks of human progress that might guide a path “to end poverty, fight inequality and stop climate change by 2030.” Every year since 2017, the Gates Foundation has released a sort of progress report tracking key data points: poverty, malnutrition, maternal mortality and 15 more.
This year, at the halfway point, how do things look? “Seven years in, the world is on track to achieve almost none of the goals,” Gates and his ex-wife, the foundation’s co-founder Melinda French Gates, write in the introduction to the latest report. On poverty, the goal was to eradicate extreme poverty, and since 2015, the percentage of the world living on less than $1.90 a day has fallen only to about 8 percent from just above 10 percent; on malnutrition, the prevalence of growth stunting in children under 5 is still above 20 percent; maternal mortality is more than twice as the high as the standard set by the 2015 goals. “As it stands now, we’d need to speed up the pace of our progress five times faster to meet most of our goals — and even that might be an underestimate, because some of the projections don’t yet account for the impact of the pandemic, let alone the war in Ukraine or the food crisis it kicked off in Africa,” the introduction reads.
To me, the severe tone is illuminating. However Bill Gates may seem in caricature — a big believer in the possibility of innovation and progress and of the kind of philanthropy-powered development embodied by the foundation — he nevertheless slips often into pretty stark descriptions of the state of the world and vertiginous assessments of how much more needs to be done to help those with the least. I spoke with him on Sept. 6. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the very big picture. We’re about halfway from 2015 to 2030. Obviously, progress has been made on almost all of these measures, but also, we’re falling far short of almost every target. Are we in a better or worse place now than you expected to be?
We’re in a worse place than I expected. The effects of the pandemic and now the effects of the war in Ukraine are very dramatic, and there are huge setbacks on all these measures. And these measures are super important — even if we missed the goal, we’re still talking about millions of lives.
Globally, even if you put aside the challenge of Covid vaccines and look just at routine immunization, things have moved in the wrong direction the past couple of years.
We’re at vaccination levels that we were at in 2009. But with the right funding in the next two years, we should get back to where we were prepandemic. And so I remain optimistic about these overall trends because of what we were doing up to the pandemic and because of the pipeline of innovation, which is pretty exciting, both on the health and agricultural fronts, if we orchestrate enough resources.
So if this is a progress report, where do things stand? Do you think of the recent story of sustainable development as a story of success or failure or both? The report’s cover page says, “It’s time to change our approach.”
On the health metrics, we have a sense of progress. GAVI funding vaccines has cut childhood death in half in many developing countries. We know that on H.I.V., we’ve done well but not nearly as well as we should be. So in health, in general, we’re kind of in a learning cycle.
But the scariest thing of all is not that we’re behind. We just have to accept that. It’s the ongoing distraction of the war in Ukraine from helping poor countries and making progress on both climate adaptation and mitigation. That’s a huge thing — whether it’s defense costs, electricity costs, refugee costs, fertilizer costs. With the war on top of the pandemic, and now with interest rates going up, with high levels of debt everywhere, but including in Africa, the next five years are going to be challenging just to maintain the world’s attention.
Before we move to agriculture and climate, I wanted to ask you about poverty. It has gotten an enormous amount of attention over the past couple of decades, and the progress has been really remarkable. But quite a lot of it reflects progress in China, right? How much do you think we should expect the long-term trend to continue, given that China has sort of finished eradicating real poverty and progress would have to come now from elsewhere?
If you’re allowed to say the truth about things in China, they’ve done a very good job. They’re now a middle-income country, in fact, one of the wealthier middle-income countries. But to your point, it’s not just China. There’s Bangladesh, India less so, Pakistan. In Indonesia there’s progress, Vietnam progress. You know, I just named all the high-population countries in Asia.
On Asia, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that India, in its own sort of up and down way, will reduce poverty over time. But then we’re faced with the mind-blowing challenge of Africa, where population growth is still there. Bad health is still there. And because so much of the continent is near the Equator, the climate change effects are very dramatic.
Let’s talk about that. I wrote a bit about the food crisis this spring, and one thing that every scientist and agricultural economist I spoke to was very careful to say was: However bad this looks, we’re not dealing with a global food shortage. We have a calorie abundance. And we’re producing more food year on year, every year, often on less land. How do you think about that seeming paradox? Why, in a world of calorie abundance, do we have increasing global hunger?
Well, the increase in hunger really comes with the start of the pandemic. It’s gone up a lot and particularly with women, who get even more reduction in the calories available to them, which is pretty tragic.
But we’ve underinvested in agricultural innovation. The Green Revolution was one of the greatest things that ever happened. But then we lost track. And the funding for public-domain seed systems has gone down. We’re trying to get that back up. The world has a goal to get that back up to like a little over $2 billion. I don’t know if we’ll get there.
Helping farmers has got to be the very top of the climate adaptation agenda. And within that, you have a lot of things like credit for fertilizer, cheap fertilizer, better seeds that we should be very intent on — funding those things and setting ambitious goals for.
But when I look at what happened with food over the past nine months or so, I also wonder whether commodity speculation in the markets is playing a role. We’ve had huge spikes in the price of food that were prompted by what were, at the global level, quite small disruptions to food supply. And those price spikes threatened for a time to push tens of millions of people into famine and hunger. Is that something that needs to be addressed? Is the way that our commodity markets are structured leaving the world’s poor too exposed to price spikes driven by speculation? As you note in the report, Africa is importing more than 70 percent of its wheat, so as a continent, it is remarkably market dependent.
Well, the thing that distorts the market is where you get export bans. But in general, the market actually works amazingly well. You’ve seen the prices come off their peaks quite a bit as people anticipate reasonable harvests in the United States. And thank God that when you have bad weather in one country, you don’t have bad weather in all countries. The market-based system here is a key thing.
The tragedy is that Africa should be a net exporter. It’s insane that the place with the lowest labor cost and the lowest land cost isn’t a beneficiary of higher agricultural prices. And that’s simply because their productivity is much lower than in rich countries and you just don’t have the infrastructure. So the cost to get fertilizer in and the cost to get the output out to world markets is super, super high. And so on behalf of Africa — not just so they don’t have malnutrition but so they develop their economies so they can fight climate change — getting their agricultural productivity up, for a ton of reasons, should be a top priority.
In the report, you write that climate change is the biggest challenge that food production has faced since the dawn of agriculture. What is the scale of likely disruption?
Well, it’s always fascinating to see that the varieties of maize that you use in the United States, they keep marching north. But eventually you get hot enough that you can’t even use maize. Maize is very temperature sensitive. You can reduce that only somewhat.
Unfortunately, there are other crops like sorghum that evolve to be way more heat tolerant, but of course, we haven’t done our magic improvement on a lot of those African crops, like sorghum. They call them orphan crops.
They haven’t gotten the innovation attention other crops have, you mean.
Maize is No. 1, in terms of improvement, then you have rice, then you have wheat and then soybean, then you drop way down to all of the things that are particularly important to Africa.
Farming is the outdoor-weather-dependent thing that humans do. And if you can’t work outdoors, if you’re drying up the soils, and sadly, there’s this cycle where you dry up the soil, then when you do get lots of rain, the soil’s not able to absorb that rain, so you get terrible runoff.
And so it’s weird when people say, “What are you talking about? Are you talking about drought or floods?” Sadly, we’re talking about high, high variance weather that leads to both drought and floods. I mean, look at that map of Pakistan. It’s just crazy. Nobody expected that. The weirdness of the weather induced by climate change over the last five years has been far worse than was predicted.
Given your interest in innovation, it’s striking to me that, when you write about possible solutions in this report especially, it seems you’re placing less emphasis on new breakthroughs. In a lot of cases, you say, we already have very good seeds, for instance. Instead, you’re emphasizing the problems with adoption, which is more of a political, social and economic challenge. In your view, why has that proved so difficult? If we have new crop varieties that can thrive under even punishing conditions, why has it been so hard to really deliver them into the hands of the most vulnerable farmers in the world? And what can we do differently, to make sure that advances in the lab make a difference in mitigating these worst impacts of climate change?
Well, we do have some success stories. We did this flood-tolerant rice or this short-season rice for Punjab. The uptake system in India is quite good. In Africa it varies a lot. Kenya’s tended to be among the best because it’s market driven and the export costs — they have better infrastructure, so they are able to connect to world markets. They have more of a capitalistic view of how you get increased productivity.
I would also say that if temperature rise stopped today, you could say, “Hey, you know, just take the best seeds we have now and adopt it for Africa.” But temperature rise is not stopping. We do need the leguminous crops that make their own fertilizer. We do need the photosynthetic improvement. Those things are 10 to 15 years away, but we need those because the temperature isn’t leveling off.
Far from it.
But you’re right. The adoption success, in the last 10 or 15 years, isn’t as good as it was when we had the Green Revolution. So Africa has a lot to get right, even ignoring new seeds, just to take full advantage of what there is today. The cost of fertilizer, though, is a gigantic setback, because when the world makes less fertilizer, who uses less fertilizer? Africa’s not buying nearly as much fertilizer as they did a few years ago. And so they’re the ones who are being priced out of the market. And what that does is, it means a season from now or two seasons from now, three seasons from now, your productivity is actually down from where we are right now. In the near term, it’s a pretty bleak picture for African agriculture.
And will the world pay attention? I say the innovation budget is a good indicator of “Is the talk about climate adaptation serious or not?” It’s like saying, “Do you fund diarrhea vaccines, which are cheap and high impact? Do you fund bed nets, which are cheap and high impact?” The world actually gets a very good grade on the global health stuff. The progress since the year 2000 on those interventions, which save lives for less than a thousand dollars per life saved — the world did a great job on that. On the agricultural side, we haven’t seen it. Despite all these climate conferences, including this next one that says adaptation is one of the big feature themes, we really haven’t seen that shifting of R. & D. priorities and increase that we expected to see. And with the war in Ukraine, it’s even tougher than before.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”