The Sciences

Data-Driven Bill Gates Wears Rose-Colored Glasses in Mexico

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 14, 2013 4:01 PM


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Bill Gates is the world's most generous humanitarian. He is also very ambitious and self-assured. Last month in the Wall Street Journal, Gates outlined his plan to "fix the world's greatest problems," as the headline of his piece stated. (It is reproduced from his annual letter.) This includes reducing child mortality and improving educational performance by better measuring the effectiveness of aid programs. Nobody can question Gates' motives, but his methods are not immune to criticism. Some smart people have sharply criticized (even ridiculed) his overall approach to international development. Others are not so blunt, and argue instead that it is the culture of development that needs to be reformed. It's no surprise that Gates, the king of all geeks, wants aid programs to be data-driven. But he should lead by example and not be so cavalier with statistics, as he is here, in this recent note lauding the creation of a new agricultural facility in Mexico (my emphasis):

One reason why I always enjoy going to Mexico is because of the country’s incredible progress, which has been really encouraging for me to get to see as I’ve spent time there over the years first for Microsoft and lately for our foundation. Despite the many challenges Mexico still faces, since 1995, the country has been able to cut its poverty rate from about 15% to less than 2% today. A major driver in reducing poverty has been agricultural development, especially innovations that have helped improve crop yields for smallholder farmers, whose lives have improved a lot as a result.

Huh? Since when has Mexico reduced it's poverty rate so drastically? From the Pew Research Hispanic Center (April, 2012):

Despite a moderate long-term rise in per capita GDP, the share of Mexicans who live below the poverty line has not changed significantly in recent decades. It was 51% in 2010, down slightly from 53% in 1984.

And from the World Bank:

According to CONEVAL (sp) (National Council on Evaluation of Social Development Policy) the number of Mexicans living in poverty to 2010 is estimated in 52 million people. This implies that around 46.2% of Mexico's total population lives in poverty, mainly in urban areas. Meanwhile, extreme poverty (those living with less than $978 pesos, US $76) a month in urban areas and less than $684 pesos (US $53) in rural areas reduced slightly from 10.6% to 10.4% (11.7 million people).

This is not to say that Mexico hasn't made great economic strides, which owes in part to the emergence of the country's high tech sector. That is something Gates can surely appreciate.

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