Technology alone will not save the world: lessons from the 2015 Gates letter

This is my latest livemint column

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Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on international development and its key challenges. Given the substance, I assume these letters reflect an annual manifesto for the organisation they head, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Last year, I wrote about how the Gates Annual Letter was disappointing, perhaps not in the context of what the BMGF itself does, but what it ought to be doing, given its $42 bn muscle and its influential promoter, Bill Gates.

This year, the letter makes four “big bets” for 2030: child deaths will go down by half, and more diseases will be eradicated than ever before; Africa will be able to feed itself; mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives ; and better software will revolutionise learning. In short, fast-tracking the identification ­technological fixes and expanding their reach over the next fifteen years will deliver a better world.

Unfortunately, these bets seem to me to be wildly optimistic. I may be quibbling, but from what we have learnt from research, there seem to be many reasons to suggest that we should be cautious with our optimism regarding what we can achieve with technology. The complexities of working on power, politics and implementation find no mention in the letter. Let us look a little more closely at each one of the bets to find out why that matters so much.

The first bet that the Gates make is on rapid improvements in global health. While eradication of polio and an answer to malaria will save hundreds of thousands of lives, tackling diarrhoea and malnutrition (often related) poses a whole different challenge altogether. For instance, poor water and sanitation, linked inextricably to diarrhoea, is not lacking in technological fixes. Communities, governments and civil society organisations are in the search for an elusive balance between physical fixes and behaviour change. Similarly, increasing the number of institutional births is of no use if the institutional facilities remain under-resourced and respond to perverse incentives. Further, one cannot stress enough on the importance of education in enabling women to exercise choice in matters of birth control in societies where women have little voice. Again, technology alone is not going to fix this.

The second bet is on agricultural yields, mainly owing to better quality yields, and factors such as better roads and access to information on market prices through mobile phones. Research on the economics of agriculture in Africa point to multiple factors, including the unavailability of insurance and other forms of risk coverage, as well as insecure property rights, as barriers to technology adoption. In fact, driven by insecurity of tenure, farmers make decisions about land use that tend to accelerate degradation, thereby reducing yields further. In traditionally unequal societies, power and politics thus are far more salient in affecting farmer behaviour than technological fixes.

The third and fourth bets are on the enhanced coverage of mobile phones, resulting increased use of mobile banking, and software for education. Bill Gates has obviously missed the recent evidence that is clearly sceptical of the ability to micro-loans to achieve transformational impacts on the lives of borrowers. Savings and insurance services obviously have shown stronger results, but in order to see significant and sustainable progress, much more needs to be done on the lines of enterprise development and financing. Similarly, the relationship between better software and education is a tenuous one, affected as it is, by problems of accountability in implementation especially when it concerns the poorest and weakest sections of society.

Finally, as Chris Blattman points out, the Gates letter plainly ignores the intractable problems faced by the unstable conflict-ridden countries around the world and instead, focuses on fixes that are best suited to stable middle-income countries. I think the governance problem goes a step further, if one considers the problem of geographical disparities within countries. Within a country like India, for instance, there exist regions with abysmal levels of state capacity to implement programmes that will come in the way of utilising these technological fixes.

The BMGF is a foundation focused on identifying innovative technological fixes to problems and has indeed supported some great work across the developing world. However, the distance from these fixes to development outcomes that can deliver a better world can only be bridged as we learn more about working with people and make improvements in delivery. The Gates are right that we are in a phase where things are changing faster than before. That applies also, to power, politics and implementation capacity, and that is what makes this an exciting time to be an observer of international development.

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