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Answers about Africa

If Africa has problems with feeding its population, how will saving more lives help them to feed even more people?

It’s true that high rates of population growth make it that much harder to get ahead of hunger through improvements in agricultural productivity. But historically and still today, poor health – high infant mortality and low life expectancy – leads to more population growth, not less. It seems kind of paradoxical, but when you improve public health, a funny thing happens: population growth comes down, usually more than anybody expected. When babies are more likely to survive, people tend to decide that they don’t need to have as many children to ensure there will be enough to help with the crops and to take care of the parents later on.

It happened in Europe and America long ago, and it’s happened in Asia over the past few decades. As the Green Revolution boosted farm output, helping raise incomes and improve health, birthrates in Asia have come down dramatically.

Africa today has the lowest agricultural productivity by far of any place in the world.  And that’s one of the things we need to change in order to reduce hunger. In Africa wherever we’ve been able to do that and meanwhile improve an infant’s chances of survival to better than 50 percent, population growth has come down quite substantially. When you interview people now, the only country where they say they want more than six children is Niger, which, not surprisingly, has the highest disease burden in all of Africa.

So I’m very optimistic that by focusing on health and agriculture in Africa, we can help create a virtuous cycle of improvement.

What new approach is your initiative coming up with compared to the previous 50 years of NGOs with mixed result? #askbillg #Africa #Ethiopia

Well, it’s important to realize that development assistance programs have succeeded a lot more than most people realize. Globally, things have improved a lot over the past few decades, in terms of things like nutrition, literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy. So a lot of governments and NGOs have been doing a lot of good work for a long time, and that needs to continue.

To try to get the most impact from our foundation’s efforts, we’re very focused on measurable results. And in global health, there are pretty clear metrics, like the number of children who die and the number of kids who, when they reach age five, have had their brain development severely damaged by disease or malnutrition. The first figure has been easier to measure, but now we’re actually getting a really good handle on the second figure, as well.

In agriculture, we choose projects that have the potential to help triple farm productivity in Africa. That’s a pretty clear goal.

Some things we do even though we may not be able to quantify the impact going in. For example, we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on what we call reinventing the toilet. We know that millions of people die of dysentery and other diseases related to sewage contamination of drinking water, so we’re going to create toilets that don’t require flush water and that are as good, in terms of appearance and smell, as the gold standard, which is a flush toilet. I can’t prove to you how many lives will be saved, but because others aren’t investing in something like this that has tremendous potential, we jump in because the field is wide open.

Does more population necessarily imply increased energy demand, resource extraction, and environmental degradation?

Again, we know that as we save lives and improve living standards, population growth in poor countries will moderate, just as it has everywhere else that has developed economically. So in that respect, we’re trying to curb consumption of resources.

Developing countries will need more energy and other resources as they advance. But the problems associated with today’s resource consumption are problems caused by the rich world.  Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions are kind of a rounding error in the global picture at this point.  Yet that is where the suffering from climate change will be the worst.  Tropical agriculture, which is dependent on the timing of rains and the rains not being too light or too intense, is the most fragile.

The only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to innovate our way to zero-carbon energy that’s price competitive with oil, gas and coal. That has the most potential to cut emissions in the rich world, which is where almost all the consumption is taking place at this point, while moderating the environmental impacts from poor countries improving their standards of living.

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