Beyond Averages: Why the Numbers Matter

As Bill and Melinda Gates point out in a recent op-ed, the past fifty years have brought unprecedented global economic growth:

“In our lifetimes, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the U.S. was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there. So is Gabon. Since 1960, China’s real income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half the world’s population…[per capita income] in Africa has climbed by two-thirds since 1998—from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.”

For donors who wonder if they are really making a difference, or perhaps get overwhelmed by the seeming intractability of the problems they hope to solve, this is a reminder well worth taking to heart. Things can get better—and they can even get better quickly.

But as encouraging as these statistics may be, they only tell part of the story.  What’s missing? Middle-income countries aren’t necessarily made of up middle-income people.  In fact, as the figure at right shows, the majority of the world’s poorest—72%!—live in middle-income countries.

Bill and Melinda Gates’s letter and this chart serve as two great reminders for impact-focused donors.

First, that positive change, even fast and dramatic change, can and does happen. The numbers that Bill and Melinda Gates cite are real and as they rightfully point out, those changes have occurred in just over fifty years—a blink of an eye, relatively speaking!

Second, aggregate numbers for a community can still mask great need and the indicators you choose are only proxies for the actual change many donors seek. From a social impact perspective, economic growth is a means to an end, not just an end in itself. The real goal is a meaningful improvement in the lives of those you seek to help.