The default trajectory for successful political leaders or billionaire entrepreneurs is to publish biographies that are largely self-gratifying. They may be motivated by the desire to inspire others with edifying narrations of the path taken to greatness, which can be fascinating and compelling. However, such accounts tend to downplay one’s missteps and contraventions, and hence do not provide a complete picture of an individual’s life.
But biographies can also be done in such a way that they capture what one has done and the impact on society, without necessarily putting oneself at the centre; letting actions and deeds speak for themselves. This is the course taken by Melinda Gates in publishing a book that can loosely be described as a documentary of development work she has immersed herself in for two decades or so and whose impact is being felt across the globe.
The Moment of Lift is a critical evaluation of Melinda Gates’ involvement in humanitarian initiatives, which on balance, have noticeably changed societies. It is a study on strategies deployed and risks taken to better the lives of the underprivileged, and particularly women, with the accent being that in a world of inequalities and where sociocultural and even religious practices debase one gender, any effort to give a lift to the deprived, no matter how minimal, always makes a difference. Significantly, all those designs to change lives must be rooted in the sociocultural milieu of target communities; that the people themselves must determine what best suits them. They had to identify and define their needs and give suggestions on how best to deal with them.
Melinda, the wife of technology multibillionaire Bill Gates, makes confessions right from the outset of some of the mistakes she made and wrong assumptions she held in the past about social work. Consequently, she repudiates conventional development models that rely on textbooks and the United Nations’ and international agencies’ economic simulations, arguing the best approach is to experience the lived lives of those to whom development is targeted.
In this publication, Melinda’s thesis is that women must be empowered to make decisions on matters that affect them, chief among them reproductive health. And that is predicated on access to information. Women require information to make informed choices; determine when to get into sexual liaisons, enter marriage, start families and agree on number of children to have.
Reproductive health exposes women to family planning, maternal health, successful births and consequential good start for children in life. It is only by managing the size of their families that women can release themselves from the age-old yoke of long child-bearing periods and inherent dangers and engage in other pursuits, including trade and economics, that better their lives.
Even so, and from experience, Melinda admits that fighting the gender cause must be strategic and multipronged. Economic empowerment and political power are paramount. Education and access to information is pertinent. Social formations such as faiths and community structures must be interrogated and sensitised on gender inequalities.
The publication bares tribulations the poor go through in many parts of the world, ranging from street children giving birth and taking care of infants to women dying at childbirth for lack of healthcare.
“It follows that if you want to attack poverty and if you want to empower women, you can do both with one approach: Help mothers protect their children,” she says.
Arising out of this, Melinda’s work, whether in India, Mozambique, Kenya or Malawi or elsewhere, begins with women. For example, a women’s self-help group supported in India and started through a modest financial outlay ended up changing lives in a manner never anticipated. From modest finances, the women launched themselves into farming and later trade, which dramatically altered their fortunes, and in cultural contexts where women are devalued, they were able to turn social norms on the head.
“If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings,” she says.
For Melinda, seeing is believing, a belief that has seen her traverse continents to experience the lives of ordinary people. For example, she visited women in Nairobi’s Korogocho’s slums and was astounded at the level of deprivation but to her surprise, their steely determination to succeed in life.
Similarly, on several occasions she visited and stayed with a Maasai family in Arusha, Tanzania, and learnt first-hand how women live in pastoral communities. The travels greatly informed her thinking and completely changed her orientation to life; learning how women and children who live under difficult conditions due to sociocultural, religious and economic conditions are able to fight their battles and remain humane.
Although not judgmental, the stories pieced from different countries and continents implicitly criticise social and cultural practices as well as economic and technological circumstances that condemn women to the fringes of human existence. Thus, the writer calls for unity among women in every society they live; urging them to identify common challenges and threats and jointly seek resolution; speaking out and getting voices heard. She acknowledges, rightly, that changing society and the status quo remains a daunting challenge because of entrenched sociocultural and religious practices. But a beginning must be made.
Launched a few weeks ago, the book is an articulate exposition of what development work is all about and how, through targeted interventions, it can change lives. Rather than catalogue her achievements in development work, Melinda provides examples of how women, through modest interventions, have made a difference in their lives; demonstrating undying determination by the disadvantaged to defeat great odds stacked against them. It brings to the fore the high level of Melinda’s involvement in global developments in health and gender and makes a call to action for international efforts to tackle inequalities that consign a segment of society to the fringes of existence.
The rallying theme is that what women need is support from each other to lift themselves out of their difficult situations; which situations are a creation of a skewed socio-economic system defined by men and perpetuated through social structures and systems. The corollary is that society cannot achieve greatness if one gender is left behind.
Throughout the book, in which Melinda narrates her transformation from a fiercely private individual and devout Catholic to an outstanding public and international figure, the author brings out in beautifully written prose the lives of various women who have either impacted her life or those she has impacted, and the abiding desire to make a difference in people’s lives in a meaningful way. It is a compelling and interesting read and hopefully will find pride of place on the shelves among works on human development.