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Five Things I Can't Stop Thinking About From the 2019 Gates Letter

By Atul Tandon

Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates release their reflections on the world in their annual letter. Their thoughts continually inspire and challenge me, and this year’s letter is no different. Here are five key things I can’t stop thinking about: 

  1. Young Africans will shape the future of not only their own communities but the entire world.”

    We know that empowering young people is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty—and even more so in Africa, where the population remains uniquely young. It’s why Opportunity is investing in programs like the Youth Apprenticeship Program in Ghana, investing in the young leaders of today who will become the global leaders of tomorrow. So far, the program has empowered 3,000 young entrepreneurs—80% of whom are female. 

  2. When economists describe the conditions under which countries prosper, one of the factors they stress is “human capital,” which is another way of saying that the future depends on young people’s access to high-quality health and education services.”

    At Opportunity, we are about two big things: sustainable livelihoods to combat extreme poverty today, and high-quality education to combat extreme poverty tomorrow. Making it possible for all children—regardless of environment or circumstance—to get a good education will, quite literally, change the world.

    As of December 31, Opportunity was actively impacting 1.8 million children through our EduFinance initiatives, empowering students who will break the cycle of poverty for their families and communities. 

  3. “Data leads to better decisions and better policies. It helps us create goals and measure progress. It enables advocacy and accountability…This work to collect and analyze data can sound—let’s face it—boring. But what’s not boring is using data to empower millions of women and girls.”

    We know how critical data is to delivering the best tools and services we can to our clients. It’s why we invest in things like Social Performance Management and partner with other microfinance organizations to set global standards that measure the efficacy of our programs. Our research and hard data then teach us how to iterate and grow.

  4. “If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing toilets aren’t your favorite topic of conversation. But if you care about keeping girls in school, expanding women’s economic participation, and protecting them against violence, then we have to be willing to talk about toilets.”

    Health and sanitation are, by nature, dirty topics—but as Bill and Melinda remind us, they are absolutely critical to global progress. Wandering the streets of Delhi with a group of Opportunity supporters last month, passing rivers of open sewage, I was reminded just how critical simple things like water, basic health, and sanitation are in our work to address all aspects of global poverty.

    In India, Opportunity has begun this important work by disbursing over 17,000 loans for toilets and an additional 16,000 loans for clean water.

  5. “Connectivity is a solution to marginalization.”

    Investing in technology is central to Opportunity’s model. Our clients know the power of digital connectivity. We’ve seen farmers be able to measure and manage their plots, rural women be able to conduct banking transactions, and village bankers use iPads to encourage their entire communities to save. The cell phone remains central to not only banking simplicity, but banking access—for women, for rural communities, and for all marginalized groups of people.

    In 2018, Opportunity had over 4 million people registered for mobile banking, allowing them to conduct transactions from the convenience of their cell phones.

Last, but not least, Bill and Melinda Gates’ conclusion to their letter is the encouragement we all need to remain optimistic and continue with our difficult, powerful work.

“We get asked a lot these days whether we're still optimistic about the future. We say: Absolutely. One reason is that we believe in the power of innovation. But an even bigger reason is that we've seen firsthand that for every challenge we've written about in this letter, there are people devoting their ideas, their resources, and even their lives to solving them.

When we're feeling overwhelmed by negative headlines, we remind ourselves that none of us has the right to sit back and expect that the world is going to keep getting better. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to push it in that direction.

In that way, we've found that optimism can be a powerful call to action. And it has a multiplier effect: The more optimists there are working for a better future, the more reasons there are to be optimistic.”

The world has come far in the last 25 years—we have less poverty and more food. We have more homes with electricity, water, and sanitation. More girls and boys are being educated, and fewer children are dying from preventable diseases. Most importantly, we have more opportunity for all. Join all of us at Opportunity International in making that opportunity real in the lives of millions of people living in extreme poverty. 

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