The Gates Foundation has a report out called a “Goalkeepers Report” 

and subtitled “The Future of Progress.” I came across it in a tweet

I’ve seen a couple of versions of this tweet, both of them show photos of gaily dressed African ladies picking at plants with their bare hands. (Not a beast of burden or a tractor in sight of course, not even a hydrogen powered one.) Already, the Future of Progress is beginning to look suspiciously like the Past and Present of Progress – that is, not particularly progressive.

The report begins: 

“Our primary data partner, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), worked together with many partners and used novel methods to generate a set of contemporary estimates for how the pandemic has affected global progress on the SDGs.”

Not the most inspiring beginning to a document that promises to be, if not a vision of Heaven on Earth, at least something better than a brochure for a cheaper on-line insurance policy.  

Then there’s a link to an article by Bill & Melinda Gates called: Gender equality depends on women having power, not just empowerment’, and a link to another by Bill called: We need to change how we think about world hunger.”

I’d like to say that I’ve read these articles so that you don’t have to, but I haven’t. Someone else can do it. Vinny?

After these links there’s a section called “Explore the data” with 18 squares to click on to find out how we’re doing on “Poverty,” “Stunting,” “Agriculture,” etc. Then there’s a 39-word (yes, I counted them) section called “Methodology,” and then the graph I reproduce at the head of this article. And, er, that’s it.

There’s lots of things to click on for more information though. For example, if you click on the “Stunting” square you get a graph like the one above indicating that prevalence of stunting among children under age 5 has gone from 33% in 1990 to 23% n 2021, and is predicted to be between 20% and 24% in 2030. The whole “Explore the data” section could be summarized in one table with 18 lines and 3 columns, instead of a back and forth click game seemingly designed to obscure whatever it’s about. 

So, to summarise, the IHME’s “novel methods” to estimate progress on SDGs (I hope you’re taking notes) come down to 18 graphs running from Back Then to Now, before crossing a dotted line to split into three lines which rise, or droop, into Yet to Come, labelled: “Better,” “Worse,” and, between the two, “Reference” – which is presumably, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right.

To understand what’s wrong with the report, and hence what’s wrong with entrusting the Future of Progress to billionaire Goalkeepers like Bill and Melinda Gates, let’s go back to the tweet, and this sentence: What will it take to tackle a broken food system and ensure women have economic power? a sentence which demonstrates all that’s wrong and dangerous about environmental activism. 

The sentence falls into three parts:

  1. What will it take to tackle a broken food system
  2.  «and »
  3. «ensure women have economic power?

It would take too long to note all the problems with this sentence, but here’s a start. Bill & Melinda are attempting to solve the problems of thousands of communities on three continents amalgamated by historical happenstance into a hundred-odd countries, each with its own specific characteristics, that would take the work of thousands of anthropologists centuries to describe and unravel. 

If there’s one thing anthropologists have taught us, it’s that the position of women in different societies is infinitely variable, and infinitely subtle (like women themselves, you may say. If you like. I wouldn’t dare.) Yet the solution, according to whoever put this report together, appears to be infinitely simple; put some women in colourful costumes and get them picking tea leaves, and put others in western business costumes and pose them before a laptop. In other words, turn them into more brightly dressed versions of what men are; either workers or drones.  

But the biggest problem is with that “and.” 

Could that “and” be concealing the back story of the Bill & Melinda divorce? For the thousands of feminists who have struggled over centuries, “women having economic power” meant “making sure the husband didn’t blow his wage packet at the betting shop.” For Melinda Gates, it’s about finding the right strategy to get hold of the biggest possible slice of 104 billion dollars. That’s roughly the gross national product of Kenya (pop. 55 million) or Ethiopia (pop.118 million.) I’d say that with this joint venture she’s going about it the right way.

  A happy event like the first world war was hugely beneficial to women’s economic power in that it encouraged their employment in offices and factories. But is that the way to go? What if the best way to tackle a broken food system in a certain society was incompatible with women having economic power? What if the solution to malnutrition was hyper-cheap diesel-powered tractors, invented by some (probably male, probably Chinese) Elon Musk type, capable of being produced in a thousand factories throughout Africa and Asia (a kind of shiny, red, big-wheeled Kalashnikov) distributed to those Africans (97% male, according to the best estimates) who know how to drive and maintain them? What if barging into a country about which you know nothing and trying to rearrange their agricultural methods and the relation between the sexes at the same time had some unpredicted negative consequences? What if Pol Pot got it wrong, and Bill & Melinda were making the same mistake?  

Who knows? I don’t. Do Bill and Melinda? Nothing about their essays (which are not part of the report, but merely linked from it) suggests that their knowledge of the problems they claim to be tackling rises above that of a first-year economics or social science student. I don’t know any more about these complex problems than Bill. But Bill is buying up thousands of hectares of farmland, and I’m not. Therein lies a big difference.       

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”  wondered Juvenal – usually translated as “Who guards the Goalkeepers?” or the like. I had to look up the spelling, and so I learned that Juvenal was not referring, as we do, to the problem of keeping an eye on the people in power to make sure they don’t run amok, but rather to the impossibility of ensuring marital fidelity. “Who gets custody of the Gates bank account?” is an alternative translation.     

10 Comments

  1. In ‘The Road to Serfdom,’I Chapter 5, Planning and Democracy, Hayek quotes Adam Smith concerning the Statesman who assumes an authority ‘which can safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which could nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.’ Listen up, Bill Gates.

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  2. Searching for the “fertilizer crisis” brings up zilch in their agriculture or its data section. When you get up to “fert” it finds one instance of the word “fertility”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was going to say that it’s worth following the links, but having done so, I’m not sure that it is! I found nothing of substance, no great ideas, no solutions to the supposed problems. I did things like this:

    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.

    As bad as the data makes it seem, the real situation might be even worse.

    Or it might be better.

    Seems like a summary of the current state of knowledge regarding climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What is the link between the 1. Gates former family, 2. custard and 3. SDGs (whatever they are)? Why custard (I know the Great British Bakers had their problems this week, but…)

    Who’d have thunk it, major problems with an “and” and yet…

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  5. “Seeing is believing”, during the Biafran war during the 60’s Oxfam and various relief charities were sending huge quantities of aid to Nigeria. The vast majority of this ended up in the markets and shops all over the country. I bought a fine selection of Levi jeans , Hendrix t shirts and my pride and joy a pair of pin striped flares. The local shops suddenly filled up with cornflakes, corner beef and you’ve guessed it tins of birds custard powder ! Our gardener got himself a beautiful pair of black wellies. During that period the USA was sending thousands of volunteers to help with probably everything, agriculture, education, religion, medcine etc etc Britain wasn’t much better. I think half went home after a couple of months, they couldn’t adjust to that way of life. By the 80’s when my family finally left not so many volunteers were coming but it was the same story ” I can’t do this anymore I want to go home”. Do Bill and Melinda think they can do better or will it all go the way of wellies and custard.

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  6. Sorry that’s corned beef, Fray Bentos corned beef , Nothing beats corned beef and picallili mustard.

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  7. JamesS
    Agreed about piccalill mustard, which by coincidence is the same colour as Birds’ custard. here in France, shops run by Africans are a source of British products of my childhood, like Horlicks & Bovril.
    It sounds as if British aid worked on the same principle as Pound shops. Shovel up bankrupt stock and flog it cheap. It was probably very good for Nigerian morale.
    Alan
    The custard was a juvenile pun on the Juvenal quote, with added reference to the custard pie thrown at King Charles’ waxwork effigy. It was late at night , when I get delirious.

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  8. JamesS
    I remember the Biafran war aid ads vaguely, a long time ago now.
    It seems nothing has changed for the poor in all the countries we give aid, or am I wrong to think this?

    over the years (60?) the same appeals for aid appear & I can’t help but wonder what their own government is doing to fix/mitigate/solve this?
    it is never even asked in any ad to help i’ve seen, but then why would a charity want to bring that up (I would).

    ps – Geoff – thanks for the post, i’m feeling delirious also 🙂

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  9. No wonder I did not get the custard allusion. The King’s effigy was (allegedly) smeared with CAKE not custard. And, unless it was a custard cake (a la Strictly that same week)… But then, how would you know? No published report that I have seen is so specific as to its custardness.

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  10. Alan
    You’re right, I couldn’t know, particularly because I can’t receive Strictly where I am. After 15 years arguing with the climate lot I’ve started to adopt their tactic of inventing my own facts and hoping that no-one notices.

    Liked by 1 person

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