The United Nations has repeatedly promised full education to everyone in Africa as one of the global targets in the past decades yet it still hasn’t achieved its goal. The UN and other international organizations aren’t as effective as they could be, according to Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think-tank dedicated to analyzing the world’s biggest problems.
“The UN has made lots of promises over the last 60 years. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals made by a group of guys in a backroom in New York, the Sustainable Development Goals are supposed to involve everyone. But they’re promising everything to everyone everywhere all at the same time,” said Lomborg in an exclusive interview with Saudi Gazette.
Last September, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have proposed the top goals for 2030 to be no poverty, zero hunger, and good health. “That doesn’t seem to be the real world. As long as we can’t do everything, I would argue let’s do the smartest things first,” says Lomborg, who urges governments to prioritize better and spend smarter in his latest book The Nobel Laureate’s Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030.
Established in 2004, the Copenhagen Consensus Center has over 300 leading economists and seven Nobel Laureates working on cost-benefit analysis and putting a price tag next to each investment in health, education, food, corruption, and climate change, among various sectors.
“We essentially look at every proposal and we estimate how much it costs and how much good it does, not just in terms of money but in terms of social and environmental impact,” says Lomborg, who was listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. “What we do is point out what are the smartest things to do.”
While the Zika and Ebola virus are attracting headlines, Lomborg argues they’re not as threatening as other “boring problems”. He says, “Tuberculosis is actually the biggest infectious disease today in the world. Every 5 days, 20,000 people die from it.”
According to the WHO, 11,316 deaths from Ebola have been reported up to February of this year.
“It’s very simple and fairly cheap to reduce. We estimate that you can save a person from TB for $900. We estimate that for every dollar spent, you’ll do $43 worth of good. That’s a good investment!”
What might seem like a profitable investment might generate zero results, he says, referring to reducing child marriages as “a bad idea”. He explains, “All the evidence points to that if you try to reduce child marriages by telling people not to, it doesn’t work! You spend lots of money but it virtually has no impact.”
International organizations such as the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and other development agencies who aim to solve issues sometimes require investment in indirect ways such as increasing women’s education, offering job opportunities, providing better nutrition that are expected to ultimately reduce child marriages.
While the cost of providing universal access to contraception is worth $3.6 billion, the social benefit is much more due to fewer child deaths and a higher growth rates in the long-term. There are 250 million people in the world who still don’t have access to contraception. If given access, the cost will approximately be $3.6 billion a year.
“It’s a shopping list for people and organizations that want to do good and a way to inform our public conversation better,” Lomborg adds. “It’ll say for every dollar you spend how much good it’ll do. We put prices and sizes on everything where we can choose as a society. This doesn’t mean that you should pick what the economists say. But at least now you know what you’re choosing.”
Such estimates are calculated by a collaboration of top economists, academic researchers from Ivy League universities, and experts in each field whose research is then evaluated by a panel of other economists and Nobel Laureates. “The real issue is that these are exactly the kind of things that governments have to do,” says Lomborg.
When asked about governments’ reluctance and international organizations’ failure to engage in such a mission during the past years, he said, “It’s actually hard to get good calculations and get the data. These are estimates of the closest we know now as a civilization on the cost and benefits.”
He adds that the natural inclination of organizations will be to agree in principle but national interests will prevail. “It will always be hard to do prioritization. In a world with many ideas, only a few can be the best.”
The Copenhagen Consensus Center is approaching governments to spend their national budgets smartly and prioritize their own country’s targets by adopting local economists with Nobel Laureates. Problems that aren’t solved in poverty and health need public investment. The public needs to be engaged in the conversation.
“The strength is not having your target on top of the list but the fact that everybody is in the thought process,” he says.