The new Gates Foundation aid report: great at human stories; but where’s the power, politics and mess?

September 29, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been reading the new Gates Foundation report, The Stories Behind the Data (lots of jazzy webstuff and graphs of bad stuff going down here – and if you dig hard enough, you can even find a good old-fashioned report to read here). On one level it is exemplary, setting out both an optimistic story of progress, and a warning that this could all be in jeopardy, not least from proposed cuts to aid budgets in the US and elsewhere. The website and graphics are clear and informative, covering 18 of the SDG’s legion of indicators on poverty, health and access to finance. Each of 15 timelines (there’s insufficient data on education, gender and agriculture) shows a fork in the road at 2016 between optimistic and pessimistic projections (here’s HIV). If you’re looking for evidence that aid matters, it’s a good place to start.

But as I was reading it, I was also struck by what is not included – basically, nearly all the stuff I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. So here’s my X ray of the world according to the Gates Foundation, and what is missing.

Category A – what’s in: Data (lots of data); health; government programmes and budgets; finance; technology; life v death; evidence-based policy making

Category B – what’s missing: Politics; civil and political rights; war and conflict; ‘othering’ and hatred; deal-making and self interest; critical junctures (political or environmental shocks that change what is politically and socially possible); social norms

If you buy this, then isn’t it a problem that so much of the progress in Category A is in fact largely determined by what goes on in Category B? It’s like concentrating on the tip of the iceberg and ignoring the stuff below the waterline.

This thought was triggered when I hit the first country case study, on maternal mortality in Ethiopia. Here’s the timeline:

You don’t need to be an Ethiopia expert to think there’s quite a lot of other things that should be on this timeline, if you really want to understand what happened on maternal mortality: the economy and growth, sure, but also war, revolution; changes of leadership; civil rights (or lack of them).

Does this matter? I assume that anyone spending the Gates’ money on the ground will be fully aware of all this. As Ros Eyben has documented, aid workers specialize in riding two horses at the same time – a technocratic, project based world of logframes and results, and the real world of messy politics, power, accident and luck. And perhaps leaving all of Category B out of it makes for a better exercise in convincing the public. But if technocrats in head offices start to believe that this is what the world actually looks like (a data and evidence-based rationalist exercise in maximising human wellbeing), then I think they run the risk of designing programmes that won’t work.

I ran the draft of this post past Jonathan Scanlon, Oxfam’s guy in Seattle and got this interesting response:

‘I’ve always wondered why Bill Gates addresses policy and regulatory issues and politics differently at BMGF compared to running Microsoft. When he had a policy issue at Microsoft he fought hard – lobbied, hired lobbyists, donated to politicians and political parties, filed lawsuits, yet on global poverty issues he ties his hands by only funding 501(c)(3) organizations in the US (and their equivalents abroad) and doing some advocacy himself. But he doesn’t fight like he did at Microsoft. Global poverty deserves someone backing a tough way to fight. If building a massive global corporation deserved this, so does poverty.’

For Bill Gates read politicians and ministers everywhere – they get to positions of power by navigating the mess, but too many of them, on arriving at the ministerial hotseat, suddenly go linear and start obsessing on measurement, predictably achievable results, zero risk etc.


And here’s BillandMelinda’s pitch, summarizing it all in 2 minutes

September 29, 2017
Duncan Green