Leave the World Better than you Found it and Other Relections from Gate's Foundation Annual Letter

Each year, I look forward to reading Bill and Melinda Gates’s Annual Letter.  As most people in our field, we follow the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation closely – not because we are always looking for money (although we are!), but because their work drives so much of the work in development and other foundations.  It is the largest foundation in the world, and it’s 50% bigger than the second largest foundation – so it’s focus areas often become focus areas across the globe.

This year, the letter tackled 10 of the toughest questions they receive, and I wanted to highlight a few of the answers (you can read the full letter here: https://www.gatesnotes.com/2018-Annual-Letter).

Why don’t you give more in the United States?

It’s so interesting that this is a question that is asked often – The Gates Foundation spends $500 million a year in the United States (compared to $4 billion in developing countries).  To me, that is a LOT!  The Annual Letter explains that when they first looked at the health field across the globe, it was evident that their resources could save millions of lives if allocated to causes like vaccines in developing countries.

But it also reminds me of a question we often get asked – why Zambia?  While our story has a little bit of insight into our co-founders’ history with Zambia and the Peace Corps, there are other reasons too!  For one, Zambia has had a relatively peaceful history – under the 2017 Global Peace Index, Zambia is one of only 8 African nations to receive a High State of Peace rating (http://visionofhumanity.org/indexes/global-peace-index/). The country has avoided a civil war, even after transitions of power post-independence.  And the people – as I have learned – are uncharacteristically friendly.  The feeling when you reach Joel village is one of good will – amidst children screaming “How are you”, you’ll often find women eager to greet you, grandmothers wanting to shake your hand, and shopkeepers asking you if you’d like a cola. 


And furthermore, a dollar goes an incredibly long way in Zambia.  It costs our team in Zambia just $40 a year per student to provide a high-quality education to one of our scholars.  For reference on what it costs us here – New York spent a median of $22,658 per student in fiscal year 2015 (http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/research/education/pdf/education.pdf).  So investing $1 into an education system goes over 500 times further if we invest in Zambia vs New York.  I know – crazy!

What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on US education?

Bill Gates answers this tough question honestly – “A lot, but not as much as either of us would like…Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion.” 

My answer feels similar – what does Impact Network have to show for the (thousands) we’ve spent on Zambian education?  A lot, but not as much as I’d like.  We have educated over 5,000 students who have passed through our school system.  Our evaluation from American University found that we are improving literacy and numeracy skills at a fraction of the cost of government schools (http://www.impactnetwork.org/our-evidence/).  And we’ve grown so much over the last year to welcome more 4 times as many schools into our eSchool 360 family.

But there are still students in our grade 1 classes who are struggling to learn their letters. There are grade 4 students who rely on tallying basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division rather than faster functioning mental math skills.  And there are grade 5 students who are having trouble with the transition from Chinyanja to English.

While we take the time to celebrate our wins, it’s also important to keep an eye on what we could be doing better.

Why are you really giving your money away – what’s in it for you?

I’m sure this is such a common one for Bill & Melinda Gates – and Melinda Gates answers it beautifully: “We both come from families that believed in leaving the world better than you found it.” [As an aside: This is what I try and tell my 2-year old when we go somewhere else to play to get him to clean up – incidentally, I am usually the one picking up puzzle pieces and tripping over legos, so I’m not sure my messaging is working].

It’s a simple thing really – leaving the world better than you found it.  And like my example above, it can apply to our regular everyday lives as well.  Pick up litter off the street (my father-in-law does this constantly, even when it’s gross!).  Take someone else’s recycling to the curb sometimes.  Be kind to the person behind you in line.

I highly recommend the full letter – you can read it here: https://www.gatesnotes.com/2018-Annual-Letter

- Reshma