By Paul Light, NYU
Bill Gates and his huge foundation are under fire these days for his unrelenting focus on eradicating polio.
Critics are urging him to pull back from the zero-case goal. Eradication is impossible, they say, and is pulling dollars away from other life-threatening diseases. Gates should accept reality and invest in controlling the disease, not wiping it out.
Well-meaning though they might be, these critics miss the point. Gates is right to set an audacious goal and take it to the finish line. In doing so, he has decided to convert what many see as an intractable problem into one that is solvable.
This is the core challenge facing anyone engaged in changing the prevailing wisdom that rules the world. It is the same obsession that drives all social breakthroughs. As I write in my new book, Driving Social Change, success is not about settling for half a loaf or even 90 percent of a loaf, but altering the basic notion that the world can only be so much better.
The prevailing wisdom always fights change–after all, that is how it remains the prevailing wisdom. It criticizes new ideas, plants seeds of doubt and argues that problems such as poverty and disease are an inevitable byproduct of progress. Even when great breakthroughs occur in moments of national concern, the prevailing wisdom is always ready for a return to power when complacency sets in.
The prevailing wisdom about global health is surely right that polio is almost impossible to eradicate. Polio is a pernicious disease, especially in less developed countries where vaccinations involve multiple doses over relatively long periods at $2 to $3 per contact.
Moreover, Gates’ polio campaign may indeed be diverting needed funding from other priorities. As the editor of the Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, recently tweeted, Gates’ “obsession with policy is distorting priorities” even in other areas that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has targeted. “Global health does not depend on polio eradication.”