Can you really engineer a demographic dividend?

Chris Blattman does the world a real service by grading the Gates Foundation’s Annual Letter for 2014. The development world is entirely too polite, and the reticence to engage with influential ideas critically does everyone a disservice.

I agree with most of his assessment. The one place where I dissent is his take on Melinda Gates’ Myth #3:

Grade: A-
Here they are fighting the myth that saving lives leads to overpopulation. I didn’t know this was a popular belief. It seems they are banging their heads against blog commenters. I would be more concerned if they heard it again and again from government ministers. But the A- gives them the benefit of the doubt that a wary American public thinks that aid will dangerously overpopulate the world.

Clearly, the idea that saving young children is going to overpopulate the world is a bit of a straw man, and God knows no good ever came of banging heads against aggressively ignorant blog commenters. But I think Blattman just didn’t get the work that including this Myth does for the Annual Letter.

The argument is there because it gives Melinda a springboard to discuss her Theory of Change – the little stylized story at the heart of her understanding of How Development Happens.

It’s a theory that animates much of the Foundation’s work, so it’s not at all surprising that Melinda Gates would want to give it top billing in the letter, even drafting in the inimitable Hans Rosling to tell the tale.

If you read through the paper she cites for this, (from the coincidentally named Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University) you get a much better sense of what’s going on here.

What she’s arguing is the Demographic Theory of Development – the idea that development needs that demographic sweet-spot of lots of working-age people alongside not many kids or retirees – to take hold. When there are lots of workers and not that many dependents, people work more and save more, and when that happens societies invest more and consume less. In this view, it’s demographic transition that creates the conditions for fast growth.

Starting from this long established link between demographic transition and economic growth spurts, the Gateses take the demographic dividend as a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for development. One key to Africa’s late catch-up, then, is that in today’s poorest countries various factors (basically in health and education) are conspiring to delay the drop in fertility rates that you need to produce a demographic dividend.

The leap – and it is a leap – comes next, in the belief that Bill’s billions can help push these countries into demographic transition.

It’s an alluring narrative, really: one that links up the kinds of health-and-family-planning centered micro-interventions the foundation is famous for with the broader, macro-level growth-and-development agenda, all couched in a sober, this-is-going-to-take-at-least-one-generation time frame. Melinda Gates is out to square the Boring Development circle here: providing a link between intervention that make women’s lives better and social transformations that raise everyone’s incomes sustainably.

Whether this can really work or not, I have no idea. But you have to admire the breadth of her vision.

Mostly, though, the Gates Foundation deserves credit for making their Theory of Change explicit in their flagship annual statement. And yet, setting it up in opposition to a plainly ridiculous myth may or may not have been the most elegant way to go about it.

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