Obama: ‘The world has never been healthier, wealthier or less violent’

Former president urges optimism and focus on progress at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conference, despite shadow cast by Trumps UN speech

Theres never been a better time to be alive, the former US president Barack Obama told an audience of musicians, activists, comedians, innovators and royalty, gathered at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan on 20 September.

Despite the extraordinary challenges the world is facing from growing economic inequality and climate change to mass migration and terrorism if you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, you would choose right now. The world has never been healthier, or wealthier, or better educated or in many ways more tolerant or less violent, he said in his speech, at an event for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Although the shock of the speech made to the UN general assembly by his successor, Donald Trump, the day before was still reverberating around the room, Obama called on the audience to reject cynicism and to look with optimism to the future. Not blind optimism, but hard-earned optimism, rooted in very real progress, he said.

Another speaker at the event, the comedian and host of the Daily Show Trevor Noah, said he liked to look on the positive side of life too oddly, a task made slightly easier with Trump in the White House.

I dont know how to feel about him. Hes a paradox for me. I know that every day hes going to make me laugh, he said. Its like theres a giant asteroid heading to earth, but its shaped like a penis. I know Im going to die, but Im going to laugh.

Optimism was the buzzword at the Gates event and is the foundations philosophy. Its focus is to acknowledge and promote the work of people who are finding practical ways to change the world, whether thats through projects to improve the life chances of young people living in deprived areas through education, or with new technology that allows vaccines to be kept cool without a fridge or ice packs in remote regions of the world.

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Barack Obama, Melinda Gates and Bill Gates speak at last weeks conference to highlight progress against global poverty and disease. Photograph: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

But the foundation is nervous. Trumps proposed cuts to the US aid budget is a concern: the country is the worlds biggest bilateral donor. As too is the presidents reintroduction of the Mexico City policy, or global gag rule, which restricts funding to overseas NGOs if they have anything to do with abortion. The US is the worlds largest donor for family planning.

Bill and Melinda Gates know that progress on reducing the number of child or maternal deaths, or reducing deaths from Aids and malaria, is fragile. Without enough money and political will, the achievements of the past two decades could begin to unravel. In a report published this month, the foundation projected that a 10% budget cut in funding for HIV treatment could mean the deaths of an extra 5.6 million people.

The Gates foundation is spending billions of dollars to accelerate action to meet the 17 sustainable development goals, adopted by the UN general assembly in 2015.

Last year, it announced $80m to boost efforts to reduce inequalities. Last week, it said $20m of that would support local womens groups, which are the main force for lasting change in communities. Supporting grassroots organisations is nothing new for the foundation, but it has not previously targeted womens groups.

The world cant move forward if half of us are held back, said Melinda. Often under the radar, womens movements have been forging and winning campaigns for a better, more equal future for a very long time. You wont hear much about these womens movements over in the UN. [The work] has been largely unrecognised and largely under resourced. Thats slowly beginning to change.

The extra resources were welcomed by womens fund Mama Cash, which will receive $4.5m to hand out to its grantees. Zohra Moosa, the organisations executive director, said the timing couldnt have been better.

At a time when a number of forces are colluding to make it ever more deadly to stand up for whats right, it is heartening to see funding that supports and backs the womens movements defending our human rights, as well as the organisations that sustain those movements.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/25/obama-the-world-has-never-been-healthier-wealthier-or-less-violent-united-nations-gates-foundation

Marissa SafontObama: ‘The world has never been healthier, wealthier or less violent’

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