The Moment of Lift (Melinda Gates)

3 August 2019

Shiri Avni

“The Moment of Lift”, by Melinda Gates, is a stirring book about the philanthropic foundation that Melinda and Bill Gates co-founded in 2000. The narrative provides a clear look into the inequalities and trials that women face in developing countries, and how these inequalities negatively impact societal advancement. At the same time, Melinda honestly and bravely discusses challenges that she and Bill faced during their own marriage, giving insights into the progress they made in building a more equal partnership. This is all part of the larger story, of her transformation into a champion of feminism and the poor. Melinda is relatable, inspiring, and humble; frankly, this book blew me away.

melinda gates at summit

Melinda Gates at the 2012 London Summit
Photo from AFIDEP.

Vaccines to Birth Control

Back in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation begins with the goal of providing vaccinations for kids in developing countries. Melinda goes to Malawi and meets women who have walked 15 miles with their children in order to get their kids a vaccination. Melinda recalls speaking with these women, and discovering that, more than almost anything, they want a different kind of shot: a shot of “Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control injection”. These women understand that cannot financially afford to have more children. By having less kids, these women would be able to get their families out of poverty: with more money to split among fewer children, they could afford to send their kids to school and to feed their kids adequately. As one woman tells Melinda:

“When you can’t take care of your children, you’re just training them to steal.”

And indeed, Melinda states that in the past 50 years, no country has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives (assuming causation, not only correlation!).

Becoming a Public Figure

As the foundation starts to put a larger focus on birth control, Melinda Gates meets with family planning advocates to ask simple questions: How can the Foundation help? How can the Foundation raise awareness of this issue?

While what Melinda originally has in mind is donations, etc., the advocates Melinda speaks with ask for the ‘simple’ thing: Melinda should become a public advocate herself. Melinda wrestls with this request, as she values her privacy and knows that becoming a more public figure would expose her to criticism. Yet Melinda rises to the occasion, and in 2012, joins the UK government to host a summit in London about contraception and family planning. The summit is widely successful, with increased financial commitments made by many countries world-wide.

Solutions Heedful of Cultures

One thing Melinda emphasizes in her book is that solutions targeted at a culture need to be heedful of the culture itself. An outsider with good intentions simply has no chance of understanding a culture from the outside if he/she doesn’t immerse him/herself in the culture first. For instance, condoms are not ubiquitous in some African countries due to the insinuation they imply: that of being adulterous. As one woman from Malawi says:

“If I ask my husband to wear a condom, he will beat me up. It’s like I’m accusing him of being unfaithful and getting HIV, or I’m saying that I was unfaithful and got HIV.”

In such circumstances, investing in birth control in the forms of pills is a much wiser choice than investing in condoms.

Education, Education, Education

Just as women in developing countries convince Melinda to expand efforts from vaccines to birth control, these same women later convince Melinda that the birth control effort need to expand to education. As one woman tells Melinda:

“Unless our kids get an education, they’re going to be right back here living in trash like us. It’s good to be able to control the size of my family, but I’m still poor and I’m still picking trash. Our kids are going to have the same life unless they go to school.”

However, besides creating more local schools, effective solutions need to bear in mind that children in developing countries are ‘workers’ in many homes. Thus, when a child begins to go to school, the family loses a ‘worker’, and this can deter families from choosing to educate their kids. One interesting solution that Melinda cites comes from Mexico, where the government in the 1990s compensated families for sending their kids to school: a 3rd grader’s family may receive $10 a month, while an older student’s family may receive $60. Also, it was found that in developing countries, parents were more likely to send the boys to school than the girls. To prevent this, Mexico compensated families with a larger sum for sending their daughters to get an education.

opportunities program in Mexico

School enrollment in Mexico increased significantly following the introductino of a cash-transfer program
Photo from Center for Financial Inclusion.

Concluding Remarks

Melinda’s book continues to wind through numerous obstacles: child marriages, caste systems in India, domestic violence, inequalities in Western countries, discriminatory laws, and more. Despite the vast range of topics, Melinda progresses from one to the other in a logical progression that leaves the reader with the feeling of having seen the bigger picture of global development.

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