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Betting big on ourselves, for a better world

By Tolu Ogunlesi
01 February 2017   |   3:05 am
Every year since 2009 Bill and Melinda Gates have written a “Letter” to the world, outlining their thinking about the state of the world, and vision for the year ahead.
Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

Every year since 2009 Bill and Melinda Gates have written a “Letter” to the world, outlining their thinking about the state of the world, and vision for the year ahead. The 2015 edition, themed to coincide with the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was titled: ‘Our Big Bet for the Future’. That “Big Bet” was that “[t]he lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.” The Gates’ broke down that Big Bet into 4 strands: Health, Education, Banking and Agriculture. I did interview Mr. Gates shortly after that Letter was published, gleaning insights that enabled me to place the Big Bet within an African and Nigerian context. It is therefore a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to encounter a similar ‘Betting’ venture – this time an assortment of seventeen ‘Big Bets’ on a better and happier world, put forward by a range of highly accomplished individuals from around the world. The ‘17 Big Bets’ Collection, published in 2016, is an initiative of the global consultancy, Dalberg, with the support of the United Nations (UN). Like the Gates’ Bets, the 17 Big Bets are inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals, and should be assessed and received within this context.

The 17 essays that make up the collection touch on various themes; each one fulfilling the Dalberg definitions of a Big Bet – “the chances we take to breed transformative shifts; the creative ideas with which we push our thinking; the investments made in solutions to current and future challenges.”
I will go on to present my thoughts about the Big Bets collection as five underlying principles, which in my opinion sum up and highlight its most important and most essential messages:

One. No digital, no development: One big takeaway is that the future of 21st century Africa lies in harnessing the nearly-infinite potential of ‘Data’ and ‘Digital’, to achieve true and lasting development. And let me say that I’m immensely excited to see flowerings of this harnessing all around me every day. Just days ago I attended a ‘Demo Day’ organized by Ventures Platform, a technology hub in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, at which six young technology companies showcased their work. All of them bound by the same underlying proposition: using the power of digital technology to ‘disrupt’ one or more status quos. In her Big Bet, Ms. Amina Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Environment, and Deputy Secretary-General Designate for the United Nations, calls for “Integration” within countries (between the public and private sectors), between countries, and, very importantly BETWEEN WORLDS – the real world and the VIRTUAL world. The real strength of Digital Technologies lies in their ability and capacity to create this transformative seamlessness between the physical and the virtual. As her essay points out, by 2015, 95 percent of the world’s population lived within range of a mobile phone signal. The question that arises is a simple one: what are we doing with all of that potential?

Two. We have to prioritize children – and women: In Bet after Big Bet the spotlight focuses on Children and Girls/Women. The message, for me, is an unambiguous one: The world needs to learn to talk to women, and to children, to understand their issues and perspectives from their points of view. Never assume you know what the problems – and solutions – are. The best and most sustainable solutions to the challenges facing them are the ones to which they lead us. Take this much-needed piece of advice from Craig Silverstein & Mary Obelnicki, in their piece, Thought Girls’ Education Was Big 154 Before? It’s Bigger Now. Here’s How. Count, Consult And Connect: A Path to Transformation: If you want to design a programme that works for young school-age girls, start by forgetting all your fancy theories and learning, and consulting them and listening to them. Because, “women and girls are geniuses in meeting their own challenges.” Indeed, the greatest investment any country can make is in the lives and wellbeing – and, very importantly, the self-confidence – of its women and children. And it is to this critical work that many of the contributors to this collection have devoted their lives. (Kailash Satyarthi, for example, was awarded the 2014 Nobel peace Prize, for his lifelong advocacy and action against discrimination and violence targeted at children).

Three. Money, money, money: Angel Gurría’s Big Bet is on the establishment of a financial ‘Global Positioning System’ (GPS) “that not only captures the immediate status quo of development resources, but also highlights pathways and direction for future action.” As Secretary General of the OECD, he is well placed to understand the power of the global financial system to shape the world for good or ill. To succeed at implementing the Goals, ever-increasing levels of funding are needed, to fight poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease. And this is especially critical in a world of growing inequality, where a handful of people – men, mostly – control most of the wealth of the world. While a forceful redistribution of wealth is not an option, we need to do all we can to ensure the creation of channels and mechanisms – ‘inclusive Business Models’ is how banker James Mwangi describes it in his Big Bet – that allow the bottom billions to get a much better deal for themselves.

Four. Organise, don’t agonise: This was the mantra that drove the life and work of the highly-respected late Nigerian pan—Africanist, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. And it is a recurring message throughout this collection. Movements are necessary, and powerful, and doubly powerful when they are properly organized and focused. We know that nations and businesses and individuals thrive by competing off one another, and that it is by this unending competition that ever-increasing value is served to shareholders, clients, and citizens. But that is only one side of the story. Equally important is collaboration, and this is a narrative that ought to be pushed just as actively. To stand a real chance of achieving the SDGs, the world needs to work harder at collaboration. There is no value in duplicating efforts, or reinventing wheels, or trying to go it alone. Jamie Drummond’s Big Bet is a “mother and daughter of all movements” that will “provoke debate” around the SDGs. Drummond understands the power of movements, having co-founded ONE, one of the biggest advocacy movements the world has ever seen. Mogens Lykketoft reinforces this point, when he writes: “Success in the very short term should not be measured in goals and targets met, but new alliances being forged, initiatives launched, action kick-started, and stakeholders included.”

Five. We are all leaders: The mobile phones in our hands have made that truer than ever – depending on how smartly and boldly we are able to harness the potential. It is left for each one of us to decide – and I will paraphrase Jamie Drummond’s all-important challenge here – whether we want to be passive observers of events, or passionate players on the field, where it really matters. As Annie Leonard & Daniel Mittler write in their essay: “Unless we shift the balance so that our political and business leaders are accountable to all citizens instead of the 1%, we are stymied in our ability to advance real solutions. Our big bet is that this can be done.” Jamie Drummond agrees wholeheartedly, positing: “Ultimately world leaders aren’t really those people running countries. We must all be world leaders. Every citizen taking action locally is a leader.”
The lesson is as clear as it is profound: Big Bets mean nothing if we’re not all Betting Big on ourselves, and on our individual and collective potential to make real change happen, across the world!