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Mutually Exacerbating Catastrophes: Responding to the 2020 Gates Goalkeepers Report

By Atul Tandon

Each fall, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation releases their annual Goalkeepers Report. Typically, the report celebrates our collective progress made toward the Sustainable Development Goals—progress that we at Opportunity frequently celebrate, too.

Year over year, we have watched the incidence of extreme poverty around the world steadily decrease—from over 37% of the world’s population in 1990 to just under 7% last year. This progress gave us great reason for optimism, and encouraged our daily work empowering entrepreneurs, helping families build sustainable livelihoods, and ensuring that children could go to school. Our goal—the end of extreme poverty—was bold, but it was within reach. 

And then COVID-19 disrupted everything.

This year’s Gates Report, unlike those in years past, is far less optimistic and far more candid. For the first time in decades, our progress is moving in the wrong direction.

Here are three things we’re still thinking about from this year’s report:

1.   “We’ve been set back about 25 years in 25 weeks.”

As the Report notes, “IHME estimates that extreme poverty has gone up by 7 percent in just a few months because of COVID-19, ending a 20-year streak of progress. Already in 2020, the pandemic has pushed almost 37 million people below the US$1.90 a day extreme poverty line. The poverty line for lower-middle-income countries is US$3.20 a day, and 68 million people have fallen below that one since last year. ‘Falling below the poverty line’ is a euphemism, though; what it means is having to scratch and claw every single moment just to keep your family alive.”

It means that for Opportunity International clients like Abena in Ghana, supporting their families is harder than ever. Unable to travel to her suppliers during the country’s partial lockdown, Abena’s income from her grain and grocery shop decreased by 50%. She had to lay off her 2 part-time workers, and her household expenses have increased, despite not having to pay for school fees. In her words, “Life is becoming very challenging. I hope and pray that this virus will disappear soon.”

Abena’s story is not unique, but rather indicative of the situations of countless people who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic. Now, their daily challenges have been compounded by global economic uncertainty.

2.   “All these catastrophes are undermining the progress we’ve made—and still need to make—toward equality.” 

This pandemic has sparked what the Gates described in their Goalkeepers Report as “mutually exacerbating catastrophes.”

“An article about the 1918 influenza pandemic in India referred to that experience as ‘a set of mutually exacerbating catastrophes,’” they wrote. “In the blink of an eye, a health crisis became an economic crisis, a food crisis, a housing crisis, a political crisis. Everything collided with everything else. ‘Mutually exacerbating catastrophes’ is an apt description for the COVID-19 pandemic, too.”

Movement restrictions have limited business owners’ ability to get to the market; millions of children remain out of school; farmers cannot get their crops to buyers; families do not know how they will continue to afford to provide for themselves.

It’s one thing on top of another—and the catastrophes keep coming.

3.   “Every person on the planet shares this crisis. We need to share solutions, too.”

So what now? What do we do when the news and data is decidedly bad?

We respond. We leverage our strengths. We remain flexible. We take risks. We develop new ideas and solutions. And we build partnerships which allow us to scale and optimize our impact.

For us at Opportunity, that means helping families defer loan repayments, access their savings electronically, and transfer funds to family members in need at no cost; providing emergency rations and grants; helping teachers and students stay in touch via social media and mobile phones; keeping affordable schools afloat so they can reopen safely; facilitating the movement of crops for farmers so that their harvests don’t go to waste; and forgiving and restructuring loans so that small businesses can continue operating. It means responding rapidly, sharing lessons learned, and collaborating with partners around the world. 

We are facing a global crisis; we are walking through mutually exacerbating catastrophes. But leaders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation remind us that even in the midst of such devastating circumstances, the work is even more urgent and important. Collectively, we have the means, methods, and money to make a difference. Our call is to put aside our differences, come together, be of the same mind, gather our strengths, and get going—because millions of lives and the next generation hang in balance.

Will you join us? 



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