A CHALLENGE TO BILL GATES
By CAMERON DUODU
At the Summit of the G20 that took place in Cannes, France, at the beginning of November 2011, the chairman of Microsoft Corporation, Mr Bill Gates, had the unique honour of being called upon by the chair of the summit, President Nicola Sarkozy of France, to address the heads of state of the countries of the world deemed to have economic muscle. They had issued a communique on the world economic situation and Mr Gates was asked to make a “ Statement in Response” to it.
I am sure that Mr Gates, like anyone who owns shares in the leading companies of the world, was worried, at that precise moment, about how the value of shares was tumbling all around the globe, on account of the troubles within the Eurozone. But instead of concentrating on the concerns of the rich and powerful of the world – his ‘natural constituency’ – he rather talked, instead, about ‘food security’ and the efficacy of vaccines in reducing deaths amongst the people Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth”.
Mr Gates told the heads of state he was pleased that many of the recommendations in a report he had presented to the G20, entitled “Innovation with Impact: Financing 21st Century Development”, http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Topics/Development/G20-Report-Innovation-with-Impact
were reflected in the communiqué. The recommendations included the need for developed countries to meet their aid commitments and explore innovative financing options, and the need to promote triangular partnerships that drew on the expertise and experience of big emerging economies in key areas like health and agriculture.
Mr Gates also said he was encouraged by the G20’s new multi-year Action Plan to address food security, and welcomed the first steps of implementation. He warned that it was “critical to continue to turn rhetorical commitments into resources and results.”
Before addressing the summit, Mr Gates had published an article in the Washington Post newspaper outlining his plan to assist the world’s poor.http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bill-gatess-plan-to-assist-the-worlds-poor/2011/10/30/gIQA28HldM_print.html
In the article, Mr Gates pointed out that fifty years ago, almost 20 million children under the age of 5 died every year. In 2010, the figure was down to 7.6 million . This 60 percent decline in childhood deaths — reflecting advances in agriculture, education, health and sanitation — was compelling evidence of the increasing justice in our world (he wrote).
But the global economic crisis was putting the long-term trend of progress at risk. Aid was targeted to fill specific gaps in development. The most important of these gaps was innovation.
Mr Gates continued, “Smart aid pays for breakthrough solutions. The green revolution that fed a billion people in the 1950s and ’60s never would have happened without advanced agricultural science funded by U.S. aid. In just the past 10 years, millions of children have been saved from diseases such as measles and whooping cough, by vaccines that Americans paid for. If countries that are currently poor can feed, educate and employ their people, then over time, they will contribute to the world economy.But if people don’t get access to basic necessities, continued suffering will lead to economic stagnation and instability. It is, for example, not only unconscionable but also a strategic mistake to allow famine to devastate the livelihoods of millions of people in the Horn of Africa.”
The private sector hadn’t always invested as much in development as it should because the market incentives haven’t always been clear, but there were ways to encourage involvement, Mr Gates stated. For instance (he said) the African diaspora was sitting on “$50 billion in savings”, that could fund development in their home countries, if it were captured through ‘diaspora bonds’. If the transaction costs on remittances worldwide were cut from an average of 10 percent to an average of 5 percent, it would unlock $15 billion a year in poor countries.
Mr Gates pointed out that sometimes Americans claimed that “we’re shouldering the whole burden of development and that, ultimately, our aid doesn’t make a big difference.” He saw it very differently: “We’re providing strategic investments that link up with many other investments to systematically make a better, more prosperous and safer world. If we do it right, we can keep shrinking the number of countries where aid is needed to zero, ” he affirmed.
I wrote to the website of the Washington Post website to congratulate Mr Gates on putting so much effort into telling the true story of Africa, instead of just giving Africa some money and walking away to go about his business.
I also drew his attention to the fact that in listing, in his article, the countries whose participation in the world economy helps it to achieve growth, Mr Gates did not include a single African country.
“Yet where would the world economy be today without South African and Ghanaian gold and diamonds?”I asked. “Or Kenya and Ethiopian coffee? Uganda’s tea and coffee? Coltan from the Democratic Republic of Congo? Bauxite (for producing aluminium) from Ghana and Guinea? Where does most of the world’s iron and copper come from?” I asked.
Perhaps, Mr Gates’ researchers had fallen foul of the usual Western fallacy of determining the true value of world products from the price assigned to them by self-serving Western markets. Seen from a price point of view (I wrote) “Africa only does contribute about 3% of world trade. But if you look at the real value of African products, by adding post-processing value [“value added”] to them, you will probably get a figure nearer 40-50% of the value of world trade.”
I went on: “I am not joking: try this for size: transforming crude oil into petroleum products; metals into machinery; raw coffee into Starbucks cuppas at $4-5 a cup; cocoa into chocolates and confectionery; gold ingots from South Africa and Ghana into jewellery and the gold bars held as “reserves” in Fort Knox, the Swiss banks and China; uncut diamonds from Botswana and Sierra Leone that are turned into the sort of stuff with which Richard Burton wooed Elizabeth Taylor; etcetera.”
I then outlined my challenge to Mr Gates: “I hope that whilst trying to save lives in Africa through your initiatives on health issues, you will also direct your powerful intellect towards comprehending this vital issue of the West undervaluing Africa’s products, in the interests of Western cornucopia. For unless African countries acquire the means of adding value to their raw materials before export, they will continue to be poor and be dependent on aid.
“What is needed is a psychological breakthrough which will convince African countries to spend less money on idiotic things like arms, and divert the savings thus made, into acquiring machinery that produces “value-added.” When people like me speak, the African governments do not listen because they think those who are not rich do not have any sense. But you, with your great wealth, can reach them because they respect the ideas that enabled you to become so rich.
Also, Mr Gates, it is an information issue, and you are peculiarly well-placed to lead an information initiative that would correctly appreciate the African economic dilemma — probably by developing software that informs the world about it — and thereby assist the Africans to liberate themselves from economic slavery.
“For, Mr Gates” (I added) “what is the point of liberating African babies from malaria, if they are only to grow up into serfs whose products will only serve to enrich the shareholders of Starbucks, Anglo-American, Hershey, Cartier, or Nokia among others? Would Microsoft have been as successful as it is, if the value of its software had been left to be determined solely by the PC manufacturers?”
I concluded: “The African babies you are saving from disease are saying to you, ‘Come to Macedonia and help us!’ Please listen to them.”