We didn’t see this coming

BILL & MELINDA GATES

How would you describe 2018?

Was it what you expected?

We’d probably say no. From especially devastating natural disasters on the one hand to record numbers of women campaigning for office on the other, 2018 felt to us like a series of surprises. The world looking backward from today is very different from what we pictured a couple years ago looking forward.

A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. It can gnaw at people to realize 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. Some surprises underscore that transformation is happening already.

Twenty-five years ago, we read an article that said hundreds of thousands of kids in poor countries were dying from diarrhea. That surprise helped crystallize our values. We believe in a world where innovation is for everyone—where no child dies from a disease it’s possible to prevent. But what we saw was a world still shaped by inequity.

That discovery was one of the most important steps in our journey to philanthropy. We were surprised, then we were outraged, then we were activated.

There have been good surprises, too. When we first started learning about malaria, we thought the world would never make real headway on the disease until someone invented a long-acting vaccine. But thanks to bed nets and other measures, malaria deaths are down 42 percent since 2000.

In this year’s annual letter, we’re highlighting nine more things that have surprised us along this journey. Some worry us. Others inspire us. All of them are prodding us to action. We hope they do the same for you, because that’s how the world gets better.

SURPRISE #1 Africa is the youngest continent.

Its median age is the lowest in the world.

Bill: The world keeps getting older, but Africa stays (nearly) the same age. It sounds confusing, but it makes sense when you break it down.

The global median age is on the rise. In every part of the world, people are living longer. As more children survive to adulthood, women are having fewer kids than ever before. The result is a global population that’s creeping slowly toward middle age.

Except in Africa. The median age there is just 18. In North America, it is 35. And the number of young Africans is expected to rise in the decades to come.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that the annual number of births is going up in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, even as it goes down in other parts of Africa. This can be either an asset or a source of instability. Melinda and I believe that the right investments will unlock the continent’s enormous potential. Young Africans will shape the future of not only their own communities but the entire world.

Melinda: 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. Health and education are the twin engines of economic growth.

region could double its share of the global labor force by 2050, unlocking a better life for hundreds of millions of people.

Girls’ education, especially, is among the most powerful forces on the planet. Educated girls are healthier. They are wealthier. (If all girls received 12 years of high-quality education, women’s lifetime earnings would increase by as much as $30 trillion, which is bigger than the entire U.S. economy.) And their families benefit, too. The more education a woman has, the better equipped she is to raise healthy children. In fact, UNESCO estimates that if all women in low- and middle-income countries finished secondary school, child mortality in those countries would fall by about half.

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