Preview: Bill Gates makes the case for optimism

Exclusive extracts from Bill Gates' column on the wonders of innovation. in this week's NS.

The Christmas issue of the New Statesman, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins, includes a column by Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about the positive shift towards innovation in the field of development.

In it, he draws on his own experience, saying: "my whole career has been inspired by the conviction that breakthroughs can make the impossible possible."

He explains how development has traditionally been lacking in innovation:

When my wife Melinda and I created our foundation and gradually started learning more about global development, we were stunned by the underfunding of innovation targeted at the needs of the poor. In information technology, the challenge was to see 20 or 30 years into the future. In development, the task at hand was very different: to catch up with the present.

. . .

What explained this shocking lack of innovation? When I was born, the world was roughly one-third rich and two-thirds poor. The rich portion had an amazing capacity to innovate, but it didn't have tuberculosis, or harvests destroyed by flooding. The poor had the disease and the hunger, but they didn't have the technological capability to develop solutions. And so most of the world's innovation was directed at the world's least pressing problems, relatively speaking.

However, he expresses optimism that this is changing with the ascendancy of developing nations:

Now, however, that tragic misallocation of resources is changing, because the world has changed. The number of dynamic, healthy and highly educated countries is much higher. In the past 20 years, China has grown by an incredible 9 per cent annually and slashed its poverty rate by 75 per cent. In the past ten years, Brazil has lifted 20 million people out of poverty. This group of rapidly growing countries, which also includes India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey, can drive innovation for the poor in ways we never imagined, because they provide a bridge between what used to be the rich and poor worlds. These countries have both a sophisticated understanding of the challenges that developing countries face and the technical capacity to innovate to spur development.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.