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14 December 2011

Preview: Bill Gates makes the case for optimism

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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. . .

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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