TIME global health

What the Gates Foundation Has Achieved, 15 Years On

Sunny days: Melinda and Bill Gates in 2014, one year before their self-imposed deadline arrived
Scott Olson; Getty Images Sunny days: Melinda and Bill Gates in 2014, one year before their self-imposed deadline arrived

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Much has been done over the foundation's first decade and a half — with more still to do

There are a whole lot of things you may or may not get to do in the next 15 years, but a few of them you can take for granted: eating, for one. Having access to a bank, for another. And then there’s the simple business of not dying of a preventable or treatable disease. Good for you—and good for most of us in the developed world. But the developed world isn’t the whole story.

The bad—and familiar—news is that developing nations lag far behind in income, public health, food production, education and more. The much, much better news is that all of that is changing—and fast. The just-released Annual Letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes a good case for hoping there is still more to come.

The 2015 letter represents something of a threshold moment for the Foundation. It was in 2000 that the Gateses began their work and set themselves a very public 15-year deadline: show meaningful progress in narrowing the health, income and resource gap between the world’s privileged and underprivileged people, or be prepared to explain why not. So far, nobody—neither the Gates Foundation nor the numerous other global health groups like the World Health Organization and UNICEF—have much explaining to do.

The number of children under five who die each year worldwide has been nearly cut in half, from a high of nearly 13 million to 6.5 million today. Polio has been chased to the very brink of extinction, and elephantiasis, river blindness and Guinea worm are close behind. Drought-tolerant seeds are dramatically increasing agricultural yields; economies in the once-desperate countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now matching the developed world in rate of annual growth. Up to 70% of people across the developing world now have access to wireless service, making mobile banking possible—a luxury in the West but a necessity in places there is no other banking infrastructure.

The trick of course is that progress isn’t the same as success. The 13 million babies who were dying a year in the years before the Foundation began, for example, factored out to a horrific 35,000 every single day. Slashing that in half leaves you with 17,500—still an intolerable figure. For that reason and others, the Gateses are turning the 15-year chronometer back to zero, setting targets—and framing ways to achieve them—for 2030.

The most pressing concern involves those 17,500 kids. The overwhelming share of the recent reduction in mortality is due to better delivery of vaccines and treatments for diseases that are vastly less common or even nonexistent in much of the developed world—measles, pneumonia, malaria, cholera and other diarrheal ills. Those are still the cause of 60% of the remaining deaths. But the other 40%—or 2.6 million children—involve neonates, babies who die in the first 30 days of life and often on the very first day. The interventions in these cases can be remarkably simple.

“The baby must be kept warm immediately after birth, which too often doesn’t happen,” Melinda Gates told TIME. “This is basic skin-to-skin contact. Breast-feeding exclusively is the next big thing, as is basic cord care. The umbilical cord must be cut cleanly and kept clean to prevent infections.”

HIV may similarly be brought to heel, if not as easily as neonate mortality. A vaccine or a complete cure—one that would simply eliminate the virus from the body the way an antibiotic can eliminate a bacterium—remain the gold standards. But in much of the world, anti-retrovirals (ARVs) have served as what is known as a functional cure, allowing an infected person to live healthily and indefinitely while always carrying a bit of the pathogen. Gates looks forward to making ARVs more widely available, as well as to the development of other treatment protocols that we may not even be considering now.

“We’re already moving toward an HIV tipping point,” she says, “when the number of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa who are in treatment will exceed the number of people becoming newly infected.”

Food security is another achievable goal. Even as Africa remains heavily agrarian—70% of people in the sub-Saharan region are farmers compared to 2% in the U.S.—yields remain low. An acre of farmland here in America may produce 150 bushels of corn; in Africa it’s just 30. The problem is largely rooted in our increasingly unstable climate, with severe droughts burning out harvests or heavy rainstorms destroying them.

“Millions of people eat rice in Africa,” says Gates, “and rice has to be kept much wetter than other crops. At the equator it’s staying drier longer, but when the rains do come, they hit harder.”

In the case of rice and corn and all other crops, the answer is seeds engineered for the conditions in which they will have to grow, not for the more forgiving farmlands of the West. In Tanzania, site-specific seed corn has been made available and is already changing lives. “That seed,” one farmer told Gates when she visited in 2012, “made the difference between hunger and prosperity.”

Finally comes banking. Across Africa, only 37% of people are part of the formal banking system, but up to 90%, depending on the area, are part of the M-Pesa network—a mobile banking link accessible via cellphone. The Pesa part of the name is Swahili for money and the M is simply for mobile.

“Today too many people put their money in a cow or in jewelry,” Gates says. “But it’s impossible to take just a little of that money out. If someone gets sick or you have another emergency, you simply sell the cow.” Mobile banking changes all of that, making it much easier to save—and in a part of the world where even $1 set aside a day can mean economic security, that’s a very big deal.

Nothing about the past 15 years guarantees that the next 15 will see as much progress. The doctrine of low-hanging fruit means that in almost all enterprises, the early successes come easier. But 15 years is a smart timeframe. It’s far enough away that it creates room for different strategies to be tried and fail before one succeeds, but it’s close enough that you still can’t afford to waste the time you have. Wasting time, clearly, is not something the folks at the Gates Foundation have been doing so far, and they likely won’t in the 15 years to come either.

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