The 2016 Gates Letter: Time and energy to end extreme poverty

The 2016 Gates Letter: Time and energy to end extreme poverty


This year’s annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates had me hooked from the outset. It’s addressed to the world’s 15-year-olds… but it should serve as a call to action for EVERYONE. While today’s high schoolers are likely to be the ones coming up with the long-term solutions to many of the problems the world faces today, we all have a part we can play starting today.

At ONE, we fully believe in the power of today’s youth to impact change. Last year we had 250 Youth Ambassadors from 7 different countries who campaigned at major world events like the G7 and the UN General Assembly to make sure that world leaders were working for the world’s poorest in those fora.


Today, ONE is campaigning alongside Eva. Eva lives in Malinzanga, Tanzania and she and her classmates are advocating to Tanzanian leaders to provide basic services like access to clean water so that they can focus on their education, and not have to spend all of their time collecting water and doing other chores.

The letter starts with the answer to Bill and Melinda’s favourite question asked by high school students: if you could have one superpower, what would it be? Their answers: more time and more energy, and as a time-pressed parent seeking extra energy I wholeheartedly agree with them. Time and energy can be the great levellers. They are universally desired by all in the world – but access to these resources is unequal.

Sure, everyone wants more time and energy. But they mean one thing in rich countries and something else entirely when looked at through the eyes of the world’s poorest families. Poverty is not just about a lack of money. It’s about the absence of the resources the poor need to realize ones full potential. Two critical ones are time and energy. — Bill Gates

They are right. And looking at Eva and her classmates shows us a real world example of how energy and time are in too short supply throughout the developing world. Eva and her friends too often miss class to make the journey to fetch water twice a day. Girls in sub-Saharan Africa can spend up to six hours a day walking to get water. And often their chores take so long that they have to do homework by candlelight. As Eva wrote to President Obama last year, “Some people are benefiting from the government power supply projects in remote areas but there are few and many lack power still.”


In fact, of the nearly one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of every 10 of them live in the dark, without electricity. The majority of them live in rural areas. –Bill Gates

Not having safe and reliable access to electricity isn’t just an inconvenience – an irregular energy supply can be life threatening. Only 30 percent of health centres in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. Can you imagine your next doctor’s visit in an office without electricity? Additionally, 60 percent of refrigerators used in vaccine storage in African health clinics have an unreliable electricity supply compromising the effectiveness of life saving children’s vaccines.

And yet the effects of access to energy are life-changing. Schools that gain electricity access provide safe environments for students to study after dark and are often used as resources for the whole community. When people have power in their homes they can start using appliances that save time in their day creating more opportunities for them – often the women – to pursue income generating activities. In South Africa, women’s employment increased by 9.5 percent where electricity was provided.

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Photo credit: Gates Foundation

It’s one of the reasons ONE has been so deeply engaged in campaigning for action to increase access to energy. Just a couple of weeks ago on February 8, President Obama signed into law the Electrify Africa Act, which encourages the efforts of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to improve access to affordable and reliable electricity. We’ll keep fighting for more investments so that Eva and her classmates can have access to safe healthcare, can go to schools that have electricity, and can study at home by more than the light of a candle.

As Melinda puts it, cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly are all forms of work – they just happen not to be paid. And for women in the developing world, not having enough time is “not simply the feeling of not having enough hours in the day. It’s the crippling effect of having to perform the backbreaking work that needs to get done when there’s no electricity”.

It’s almost impossible for those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries to understand how unpaid work dominates the lives of hundreds of millions of women and girls. –Melinda Gates

To illustrate this point, research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa women and girls in low-income countries spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water – the equivalent of a year’s worth of labour by the entire work force in France.

This unpaid work doesn’t only hinder girls and women from making their own money. In many countries, since women cook over open fire or traditional stoves, they breathe in pollutants every day. The indoor smoke is responsible for more than half a million deaths annually due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among women worldwide.

And the energy and time poverty points are linked: lack of access to electricity is a huge factor in trapping women in “time poverty.” Women around the world currently spend up to 5 hours a day collecting fuel for cooking and heating their homes. This doesn’t have to be the case for Eva and her classmates. They do not have to be destined to be another generation stuck in the cycle of poverty. By providing clean, safe, and reliable energy Eva and her peers will have the ability to spend less time doing household chores and will have more time to pursue education and other pursuits.

These issues and the challenges Eva faces disproportionately affect girls and women, showing yet again that poverty is sexist—which is another big cornerstone of our work at ONE. We’ll be launching our Poverty is Sexist campaign on March 8 alongside a report that highlights the opportunity for the world to make strong commitments this year to deliver for girls and women around the world.

More energy and more time. Two keys to ending the cycle of extreme poverty.

Read the annual Gates Letter, then take action and let the Tanzanian government know you stand in solidarity with Eva!


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