Daidle deedle daidle, daidle daidle deedle daidle dum. Am I to be continually disappointed? It certainly seems so. The Wall Street Journal has re-published an annual letter from Bill Gates and given it the title “My Plan to Fix The World’s Biggest Problems”. I expected a plan to fix the world’s biggest problems. What I got was the prevailing wisdom of MBAs everywhere—the importance of measurement and a lengthy list of Mr. Gates’s foundation’s accomplishments:
In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.
This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.
Let’s consider the program to eradicate polio, the subject on which Mr. Gates elaborates in the letter. After a multibillion dollar eradication program, polio remains endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. In recent years the project has actually lost ground in those countries:
Some Islamic clerics have even issued fatwas saying that any person who became paralyzed or died from polio would be given the status of a “martyr” for refusing to be duped by a western conspiracy.
Insurgents also claim polio vaccinators are spies.
In Pakistan, such beliefs gained particular credence after it emerged that the CIA used a fake vaccination team headed by a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to collect information about Osama bin Laden.
In Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, local Taliban leaders have also issued a fatwa banning polio vaccinations until the United States ceases drone strikes in the area.
In enforcing these bans, militants have killed scores of foreign and local humanitarian aid workers. In the past week, gunmen in Pakistan killed eight polio vaccination workers. In Afghanistan on December 1, gunmen killed a 20-year-old Afghan woman who distributed polio vaccinations in the eastern Kapisa Province.
This spate of violence has coincided with growing cases of polio in Afghanistan and Nigeria — and threatens to stifle recent progress toward defeating the disease in Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, an polio-prevention campaign involving thousands of volunteers and a number of international agencies almost wiped out the deadly disease in 2010.
The Afghan government registered only 25 polio cases that year, but that figure tripled to 76 last year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed the Taliban, demanding that they allow teams of vaccinators to administer antipolio drops to children in areas under their control.
Meanwhile, the cancellation of the immunization programs in Pakistan on December 19 due to the recent violence threatens to reverse recent gains toward eradicating polio in that country. Some 56 polio paralysis cases where reported in Pakistan this year, down from 190 cases in 2011.
In Nigeria, attempts by Islamic extremists to ban a United Nations immunization campaign have resulted in the infection returning to eight previously polio-free countries in Africa, according to the UN. Last year, Nigeria recorded 43 cases of polio, compared to just 25 cases the year before.
As Jonathan Swift wrote, “reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired” and I doubt that better measurements will convince Pakistani clerics who are opposed to vaccination as a Western plot otherwise.
Throughout his career as CEO of Microsoft, Mr. Gates made a practice of solving 90% of a problem and then proclaiming it 100% solved. I sincerely hope he’s not applying the same standard to the “world’s biggest problems”.
As to education in the United States, please reflect on this question. Is our problem that we don’t have enough measurements or that the measurements don’t reflect well on those whose job it is to solve the problem and, consequently, go unheeded?