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The Greatest Breakthroughs for Humanity

November 11, 2013

It was fun to read the recent Atlantic article, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”, and illuminating to see how a dozen leading scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians think about the innovations that have most shaped the modern world.

When I cast my own reader’s vote for the top 5 innovations among those top 50, I went with what would make the biggest difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people. In each of these areas, we have an opportunity to build on the advances of past generations to create new breakthroughs that really help improve the quality of their lives.

Here’s my Top 5 list:

Vaccination (#8 on The Atlantic's list)

Vaccines are absolutely one of the best investments we can make in children. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to deliver. They save lives. And they reduce the burden of disease that keeps many communities and countries from flourishing. For example, 25 years ago, polio was endemic in 125 countries, and nearly 350,000 children a year were paralyzed by the disease. Today, thanks to the efforts of Rotary International and others in the global community who are making sure the vaccine gets delivered, polio has been eliminated in all but three countries, and there were just 223 reported cases of polio in 2012.

The challenge now is two-fold: to discover new vaccines for diseases affecting the world’s poorest, like malaria and tuberculosis, and to deliver the vaccines we have to every child who needs them, not just children in wealthy countries.

Sanitation systems (#12 on The Atlantic's list)

Reinventing the toilet is on my short list because 2.5 billion people have either inadequate sanitation facilities or no sanitation facilities at all (they defecate out in the open). This isn’t just unpleasant; it also contributes to the 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea each year. Traditional sanitation systems with flush toilets, sewers, and expensive treatment plants have dramatically improved health – but only in countries where people can afford them. Innovations in affordable toilet design, and sludge treatment and reuse, are what we need for the developing world—and perhaps in the developed world as well, since the technology of the “modern toilet” hasn’t really advanced in the past 200 years.

Birth control pill (#20 on The Atlantic's list)

No question, the birth control pill revolutionized family planning in the developed world. But the pill isn’t appropriate for women in many countries, and hundreds of millions of poor women still don’t have access to contraceptives or good information about planning their families. In 2012, global leaders agreed on a plan that will give tens of millions of poor women access to long-lasting, reversible contraceptives. For the first time, they, too, will have the power to decide when to have children, which is essential to keeping families healthy, well-nourished, and educated.

Green revolution (#22 on The Atlantic's list) and scientific plant breeding (#38 on The Atlantic's list)

The Green Revolution from the 1960s to the 1980s helped double world food production, saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. But new seeds and production technologies didn’t reach poor farmers in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who are still struggling to grow enough food. Today, an estimated 870 million people are severely hungry. More productive farming techniques are helping poor farmers increase yields and preserve agricultural land for future generations. And discoveries in plant breeding are helping them grow hardier, higher-yielding, and more disease-resistant staple crops. But as the world population grows, we need more breakthroughs.

Since 1990, the world has cut extreme poverty in half, and deaths of children under 5 have dropped almost as far. Much of this is the result of technological innovation. Yet, as far as we have come, most of the 6.6 million child deaths in 2012 could have been prevented – and can be prevented in the future – if we stay focused on the advances that matter most to the world’s poor.

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