Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Last week in an open letter, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation laid out what they see as theIR vision for the poorest of the poor in Africa.

The annual letter outlined the four areas which will serve as game changers and where interventions will have the highest impact – health, farming, banking and education.

In health they celebrate that since 1990 infant mortality has been halved while maternal mortality has fallen by two thirds. They project that infant mortality will be halved again over the next fifteen years and diseases like Guinea worm, elephantiasis and river blindness will follow small pox and polio into extinction.

In farming they lament that the continent spends $50b annually on food imports poor farm productivity is at the heart of the problem, African can only manage a fifth of output per unit area compared to their US counterparts. They see the continent climbing out of this trough with productivity increasing by half over the next decade and a half, with the use of fertiliser, better planting techniques and improved timing.

Improved access to financial services through mobile banking will allow the poor more access to their assets and help them transform their lives. It was noted that in this one rare incident innovations are flowing from the poor south to the north as Africa embraces these financial services while consumers in the developed world continue to pussy foot around them.

And finally while access to education has jumped in the last fifteen years with numerous universal primary education initiatives around the continent, with improved technologies in computing and telecommunications students will have access to better and wider resources improving education quality. But they warn that as long as the disparity in access to education continues to disfavour girls the gains may be limited.

"Women spend more on the family. Educated women raise healthier children. And educated women will ensure their daughters not only go to school but stay there longer....

A decade ago or so ago when Bill Gates started shifting his attention away from software firm, Microsoft, which he founded  and towards philanthropy, it was clear to him that despite his billions there was only so much he could do. So he decided to focus his interventions on health and education.

He has worked out that improving human capacity would be the best use of his dollars. He could build a few kilometres of road or lay down railway lines or build power dams – critical interventions in themselves, but he seems to have worked out that investing in people is key.

I read somewhere that emphasis on physical infrastructure is useful but improvements in human capital are critical for sustainable development. We keep hearing how Uganda was at the same level of development as many of the south east Asian countries in the 1960s. But that comparison was being made using GDP per capita figures. The truth is while Uganda had less than 500 A-level students at independence countries like South Korea were already churning out thousands of graduates annually.

Of course our processes were short circuited by chaos – triggered by people with low human capacity. Assuming we had maintained stability it is unlikely we would have matched up to South Korea or Singapore or Taiwan today because of the low base of our human capacity at independence.

"We can build all the roads, dams and railways that we want, but if we don’t have the manpower to exploit them others will come and employ them for their own ends. It is not rocket science....

But who better to shine a light on this truth than a computer programmer, who was at the forefront of the cyber economy, which shoved the smoke stack, brick and mortar economy to the side.

Maybe we should take him seriously, after all his personal wealth is almost thrice the size of the Ugandan economy and he made it without stealing!

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