Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’s annual letters have been a recurring feature which touch upon global issues that need to be looked after. For the 2019 annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates discuss nine surprising things they didn’t see coming in 2018.

The Gates couple start off the letter with how 25 years ago, an article talking about kids dying due to poverty had surprised them and laid the foundation for their philanthropic activities through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The letter is filled with scribbled notes in the margins, probably written by Bill and Melinda’s daughters.

“A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. It can gnaw at people to realise that the realities of the world don’t match their expectations for it. Some surprises help people see that the status quo needs to change,” says the letter.

DNA Test Kits

At-home DNA test kits got a mention in Gates’ annual letter. Bill spoke about the importance of DNA testing and how it is helping in forensics as well as preventing premature birth. He spoke about how a health startup 23AndMe (funded by Gates Foundation) helped scientists analyse 40,000 voluntary DNA samples and discover a link between preterm labour and six genes.

According to the study, one of the genes that prevents the processing of a mineral called selenium, was related to mothers who were most likely to deliver premature babies. The problem with premature babies (around 15 mn are born premature annually making it a leading cause of death for children under the age of five) is that the mortality rate is higher in low-income families.

The lesson from this research by 23AndMe was that with at-home DNA-testing kits, more data sharing on the topic could throw light on resolving issues related to prematurity. Gates also touched upon a simple blood test for prematurity that is being researched at Stanford which would tell a woman how soon she would give birth.

Grand Challenges in Climate Change

Bill Gates quoted an IPCC chart on greenhouse gas emission and was surprised to discover that electricity consumes only 25 percent of all the greenhouse gas emission. Agriculture accounts for 24 percent, manufacturing industry contributes 21 percent among other reasons. With rapid urbanisation, Gates claims that between now and 2060 the building stock increase would be equivalent to adding another New York City monthly till 2060. As this would involve massive use of cement and steel, innovative ways need to be devised to ensure minimal climate change through these developmental activities.

“The larger point is that if we’re going to solve climate change, we need to get to near-zero emissions on all the things that drive it—agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings. I call these five areas the grand challenges in climate change…Solar panels are great, but we should be hearing about trucks, cement, and cow farts too,” said Gates.

Mobile phones — a powerful tool in the hands of poor women

Speaking about the importance of connectivity to solve issues pertaining to marginalisation, Melinda Gates spoke about how a mobile phone has the potential of opening up many avenues for women belonging to the lower-income group. According to her, women are using mobile phones to not just improve their living situations but also to challenge social norms and power structures that perpetuate gender inequality.

Need for next-gen toilet design

Gates spoke about the need for next-gen toilet designs which would take into consideration the affordability factor. Considering around 2 bn people defecate in the open, it can lead to a lot of untreated waste which is the cause of death of around 800 children. Importing toilet solutions from developed countries is also not an option as that is predicated on the fact that there is a functioning sewer system.

“The real magic happens out of sight. Unlike today’s commodes, the toilets of the future are self-contained. They’re essentially tiny treatment plants capable of killing pathogens and rendering waste safe on their own. Many of them even turn human faeces and urine into useful byproducts, like fertiliser for crops and water for handwashing,” said Gates.

Melinda Gates also spoke about how it could improve the lives of women and girls from low-income groups who have to worry about their safety every time they step out to answer nature’s call. “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,” said Melinda Gates.

Sexist Data

Gates raised the issue of a general lack of data when it comes to women and girls, to the extent that a lot of the big data we have is sexist in nature. Data on aspects such as income earned by women in developing countries, property owned by women or the number of additional hours girls spend doing household chores over boys is not known. Unless there’s enough data on these and more such women’s issues, there is no way better policies will be drafted in women’s favour feel the Gates couple.

“The problem isn’t only that some women are missing from the record altogether. It’s also that the data we do have—data that policymakers depend on—is bad. You might even call it sexist. We like to think of data as being objective, but the answers we get are often shaped by the questions we ask. When those questions are biased, the data is too,” says Melinda Gates.

Other challenges

Four more challenges facing the world were discussed such as the need to invest more in Africa as its lowest median age population has a lot of potential to shape the future of the world. Learning about anger management from teenage boys. A nationalist case for globalism and much more.

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