The 2016 Gates Letter is all about power

The Gates have now made an annual tradition of publishing their development manifestos – they are in the form of letters that they write early in the calendar year. These letters contain not only their personal vision, but presumably, that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Broadly, my reaction to the letters in 2014 and 2015 were that they reflected an inordinate focus on technology-driven solutions. By those standards, I was in for a surprise this year as I read the 2016 Gates Letter.

In his section, Bill Gates outlined his dream of an “energy miracle”. This is easily one of the most important priorities for the globe. Experts are united that clean energy is the way forward. Falling oil prices might just present a serious challenge to this push, but hopefully this is a temporary glitch that will not derail investments in research and development in the search for clean energy. This search also ties in with the Gates’ traditional areas of strength, which are science and technology-driven, looking to extend the frontiers of knowledge in an effort to improve human welfare.

As critical as advances in science and technology are, Gates does well to remind us of the power that governments have and thereby, points to the importance of generating a political consensus:

“Governments have a big role to play in sparking new advances, as they have for other scientific research. U.S. government funding was behind breakthrough cancer treatments and the moon landing. If you’re reading this online, you have the government to thank for that too. Research paid for by the U.S. government helped create the Internet.”

On clean energy, I am going to just say that there is near universal consensus in its favour, ignoring what climate change deniers might hold. Of course, a surprise in the upcoming presidential election in the United States might throw a serious spanner in the works, but on this issue, I am as optimistic as Bill Gates is.

This year, it is Melinda Gates’ section on women and unpaid domestic work that makes for some great reading. This is essentially a political topic. Gates herself recognises that there are no easy technology-led fixes to this problem. Women spend more time on unpaid domestic work than men do; and partly as a result, they make up a smaller proportion of the labour force (especially organised labour force). Women are disadvantaged by a complex web of power relations that underpin this injustice, and it is great to see Melinda Gates calling them out. The letter focuses on a three-part strategy:

“Recognise, Reduce, and Redistribute: Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”

Technological advances can certainly help. As Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang says, mundane technologies like washing machines, piped water and gas have essentially transformed the way families operate. However, the societies that the Gates are primarily concerned about – ones in Africa and South Asia – remain places where women continue to face a variety of cultural and societal prejudices, and their powerlessness is manifested in abysmal health, education and property-ownership outcomes, to name just a few.

This messy politics of power is not normally an area that the Gates Foundation likes to venture into. And yet, the very nature of gender inequality has dimensions that cannot be addressed without working on power issues, alongside personal and societal behaviour. Platitudes alone, like what essentially was our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the National Conference of Women Legislators in Delhi, will make little to no difference.

The story of Anna and Sanare, that Melinda Gates closes her letter with, highlights the importance of shifting norms of personal, familial and societal behaviour. This is essentially a hard grind towards an objective that will probably not be realised in time for 2030 – a milestone the Gates had set in their 2015 letter for the poor worldwide attaining huge improvements in health, education, nutrition and mobility. But more importantly, by highlighting the complex issue of gender justice, the 2016 Gates Letter acknowledges a reality that will largely determine the extent to which these improvements will be realised in the years to come.

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