By Invitation | Economic development

Bjorn Lomborg calls for a new approach to meeting global development goals

Narrowing the list of promises would allow more to be done with less money, says the Danish economist

image: Dan Williams

WORLD LEADERS gathering in New York for the 鲍狈’蝉 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit next week will be faced with the entirely predictable failure of their own grand promises. Adopted with fanfare by every leader in 2015, the SDGs promised to achieve almost every imaginable good thing by 2030, including eradicating poverty, gender discrimination and hunger; tackling climate change, corruption and chronic diseases; ending AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; ensuring everyone gets energy, education and jobs; and, for good measure, boosting artisanal fisheries, sustainable tourism, urban green spaces and organic produce.

Politicians wanted the goals to be all things to everyone, so they failed to focus, prioritise or leave anything out. But saying everything is important means that nothing is.

Therefore, at the halfway mark of the commitments, the world is now far off track. Even ignoring the impacts of covid-19, the promises will on average be achieved half a century late. Many will take far longer: there has been no momentum at all on one-third of the goals, and some important indicators have even moved in the wrong direction. The UN estimates, for example, that at current rates of progress it will take 286 years to close gender gaps in legal protection.

Promising everything was supposed to create a groundswell of public support and investment. That never happened. Resources have remained tight, and the adoption of the SDGs did not speed up global progress on the key development indicators.

The UN is unwilling to reconsider its sprawling 169 promises; instead, it simply hopes for more money. António Guterres, the 鲍狈’蝉 secretary-general, wants governments to deliver an additional stimulus package of $500bn annually. Taxpayers will be reluctant to give even a fraction of that amount.

Moreover, this doesn’t address the underlying problem of allocation, since even such a massive increase in funding would still be one-twentieth the estimated full cost of meeting all the goals. Who gets to decide where that half-trillion goes—the same officials who failed to focus in the first place?

What is needed is prioritisation. The world cannot achieve everything by 2030. Instead, it should try to achieve the most efficient things first.

My think-tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, has worked with more than 100 of the world’s top economists to identify the most efficient policies across all the SDGs’ promises for the world’s poorer half—the 4.1bn people in low- and lower-middle-income countries. We examined the social, environmental and economic components of both benefits and costs.

Investigating well over 100 potential policies, our new, peer-reviewed research identifies 12 of them that each deliver returns worth more than $15 in social benefits for each dollar spent. Prioritising these investments would supercharge progress towards meeting the world’s goals: for about $35bn annually, we calculate that we could save 4.2m lives and make the poorer half of the world more than $1trn better off every year. That means that each dollar invested would deliver an astounding $52 of social benefits.

Take, as one example, the drive to eradicate tuberculosis. The disease has been treatable for more than half a century, yet it still kills more than 1.4m people a year. An additional $6.2bn annually could enable much broader diagnosis and ensure most tuberculosis patients stay on their medication, reducing deaths by 90% by 2030. The social benefits, including avoided deaths and disease, outweigh the health-care and time costs by 46 to 1.

Another priority should be to tackle hunger. We need a “Second Green Revolution” that enables farmers in poor countries to feed more people for less. We estimate that spending just $5.5bn a year on agricultural research and development to boost yields of cassava, sorghum and other crops that have been overlooked by researchers in recent decades would improve productivity and climate-change resilience, increase yields for farmers, reduce prices for consumers and rescue more than 100m more people from hunger each year. In this case, each dollar spent could deliver $33 in social benefits.

Maternal and child health deteriorated during the pandemic as resources and attention went elsewhere. Our research shows that a simple package of basic obstetric care and more family planning could save the lives of 166,000 mothers and 1.2m newborns annually. Encouraging more women to give birth in health-care facilities, including with small cash incentives, would allow better treatment. For instance, more than 700,000 newborns die each year because they fail to start or keep breathing. A resuscitator—a $75 mask with a hand pump—can potentially save dozens of children over its three-year average lifetime. Along with other low-cost improvements and staffing, the total annual cost would be less than $5bn. We estimate it would deliver $87 back on each dollar.

Primary education can also be made much more efficient. In every classroom, some students struggle, while others are bored because instructors cannot teach each student at their specific level. But tablets with educational software can, and can be shared around schools. Large trials have conclusively shown significant benefits for children using such tablets for just one hour a day. In one year, a student can now learn what normally takes three. Along with other tested policies, The Economist has calculated that the cost of improving primary education for almost half a billion school children would be nearly $10bn. It would be money well spent: better-educated pupils are more productive when they enter the workforce. That would raise the future discounted lifetime incomes of those who benefit from the policies by more than $600bn.

If philanthropists, development agencies and politicians embraced these 12 value-for-money policies, the world could reap enormous benefits at low cost. Rich-country governments are likely to respond to the entreaties from civil society and the UN by pledging slightly more money for the SDGs. They should insist that any additional spending goes to the best things first.

Bjorn Lomborg is the president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” (2001) and “Best Things First: the 12 Most Efficient Solutions for the World’s Poorest and Our Global SDG Promises” (2023).

More from By Invitation

Javier Milei argues that Argentina’s central bank should not exist

Nor is there a future with the peso, says the presidential front-runner

David Keith on why carbon removal won’t save big oil but may help the climate

Greens should cheer the blurring of the industry’s interests, says the academic

A web of security guarantees could give Ukraine all the help it needs, says Fabrice Pothier

The former NATO policy planner examines the potential power of recent international dealmaking