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Making those bills count

By Adithya Pradyumna
on February 26, 2016

The gift of time and the gift of energy are truly worth having, to the extent that a power couple rightly listed   them as superpowers earlier this week. One cannot buy time, but one can harness energy and delegate responsibilities in an equitable manner to ensure the time available is used optimally and in a way that wellbeing is improved. So time can be bought indirectly to an extent. Energy, on the other hand, can be directly bought, and one person can harness great amounts of energy to get things done, as long as energy is accessible and the associated technology is available. However, energy itself is limited in a sense.

Melinda and Bill Gates are keen on bringing time (and gender equity) and energy (and dignified livelihoods) to the masses – Melinda specifically focuses on women in the Global South. Both are, clearly, good thoughts.

From my point of view, some of the issues worth reflecting about in this context are these:

  1. Mr and Mrs Gates usually support “politically correct” issues, such as education, agriculture (technology) and healthcare (technology). True, not everybody agrees they are all politically correct issues, but you know what I mean. Meanwhile, in many countries (and India is surely one of them, currently) NGOs are not allowed by governments to engage with direct “politics” – that is, towards mobilising and empowering communities based on issues. Yet, one could argue that with improved availability of time and energy, people will have the opportunity (and the “energy”!) to engage with the politics of power, thereby attempting to address the underlying determinants of ill health and marginalisation. This could be an interesting and, dare I say, transformative spin-off of Bill & Melinda’s idea! (not sure they’ve thought it fully through)
  2. Because of their tendency not to get involved in “political” work (at least not openly), their focus is more on service provision and facilitation, hence the (over)emphasis on technology. There is no denying the importance of technology in improving wellbeing, but two issues become of concern here: technological optimism in the face of disaster, and risky (and potentially catastrophic) technology. Evidence of the former is Bill Gates’ hope for an energy “miracle” (granted, he tries to boost the likelihood of this miracle happening, financially and via other means, so it’s not just pie-in-the-sky). We too hope for a technological breakthrough, but meanwhile we should not wait with our hands folded on a number of other aspects that seem key in the battle against climate change. The latter is an aspect not much touched upon in this annual letter but has previously been mentioned by Mr Gates – involving issues such as geo-engineering and genetically modified crops. A bit less politically correct, clearly. But Bill Gates does also emphasise harnessing solar and wind to the extent possible.
  3. Women still get disproportionately overworked and underpaid, and surely there is a lot of scope to address this in developing countries – again with India as a case in point, as Melinda Gates rightly stresses. The two seemingly simple interventions of household water supply and cooking fuel could really help with “time” (besides huge health benefits), and should receive greater attention. But it is also worth remembering that waiting for an energy miracle without addressing carbon emissions in the meantime will only worsen the situation of both water and fuel for the most marginalised societies (through multiple mechanisms), and so there is more than enough reason to phase out fossil fuels (and replace with renewable energy to the extent possible) as soon as possible, irrespective of the energy “miracle” (that hopefully will materialize sooner rather than later).

 

To conclude: if anything, what we can indeed learn from Melinda and Bill Gates is how they use their time and energy to work hard towards the world they dream of, a fairer world where all lives have equal value. By the way, I have no doubt that they work harder than I do, whether previously at Microsoft or currently at their Foundation, and so this is a message I take away from their letter.

I may not have the bucks, but I do have the time and energy, and that should be enough to make my own contribution to a fairer and sustainable world!

About Adithya Pradyumna

Adithya Pradyumna is a faculty member at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He is trained in medicine (MBBS), environmental health (MSc), and epidemiology (PhD). He works in the broad area of environment and health, and is an alumnus of EV4GH (2014).
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