Over the past three days, after years of build-up, world leaders have been getting down to the business of setting some of the most important priorities for the next 15 years.
At stake is $2.5tr in development aid, and countless trillions in national budgets. Unfortunately, because of politicking and a desire to please everyone, this massive budget will achieve four-times less good than it could.
The presidents and prime ministers agreed to replace the 18 targets of the Millennium Development Goals with an impossibly long list of 169 development targets. These will be known as the ‘Global Goals’.
The chief problem with this new laundry list of targets is that trying to prioritise 169 things looks very similar to prioritising nothing.
Researchers for Copenhagen Consensus – the think tank that I am president of –explored how much social benefit the targets would achieve, and found that some targets could achieve a huge deal, others very little. Spreading money and energy thinly among them reduces the overall good that we do.
Consider this target: “By 2030, ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.
It is hard to know what is promised, let alone how it will be implemented, monitored or evaluated.
The target to achieve “full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men” appears admirable – but making zero unemployment a global policy is foolish. Every economy needs some unemployment to allow workers to change jobs.
All governments are already focused on getting more people into work. Moreover, studies show such language is used by interest groups to create great jobs for a minority, while leaving others out in the cold, often pushing vulnerable workers back into the informal economy and increasing poverty. The costs of this target will likely outweigh the benefits.
At the other end of the spectrum, Copenhagen Consensus analysis by a panel, including several Nobel laureate economists, found that there are 19 specific targets within the 169, that would do more than $15 of good for every dollar spent.
Here’s the full list:
Lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%
Halve malaria infection
Reduce tuberculosis deaths by 90%
Avoid 1.1 million HIV infections through circumcision
Cut early death from chronic diseases by 1/3
Reduce newborn mortality by 70%
Increase immunisation to reduce child deaths by 25%
Make family planning available to everyone
Eliminate violence against women and girls
Phase out fossil fuel subsidies
Halve coral reef loss
Tax pollution damage from energy
Cut indoor air pollution by 20%
Reduce trade restrictions (full Doha)
Improve gender equality in ownership, business and politics
Boost agricultural yield increase by 40%
Increase girls’ education by 2 years
Achieve universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa
Triple preschool in sub-Saharan Africa
Take achieving universal access to contraception and family planning: it will mean fewer orphans and mothers dying in childbirth. It will also generate a demographic dividend, with more people of productive age. In total, every dollar spent will mean $120 of benefits to society. Likewise, with ending tuberculosis by 2030 (saving nearly 1.5 million lives a year, with each dollar leading to $43 worth of benefits) and completing the Doha free trade deal (lifting incomes and cutting poverty especially in developing countries, the benefits would be worth $2,000 more than the costs).
Analysis of all the benefits and costs shows that focusing on the top 19 targets identified by the Copenhagen Consensus Center would achieve four-times more than if we sprayed all the development spending around 169 targets.
In other words, prioritising would have the same effect as quadrupling the entire budget.
Even here on the floor of the United Nations, I find that global leaders, ambassadors, and those who work in development agree that the targets should have been severely pruned. They just all want their targets.
But instead of making this a game of who got the most of their targets into the final declaration, it should be all about getting the most effective targets in there.
So what happens next? Every leader – from both donor and developing countries – knows that when they return home, their countries will not be able to work on, monitor or evaluate 169 different targets, so they will inevitably have to choose a smaller number to focus on.
We should start by focusing on the 19 targets that are the most effective. It would see every dollar go four times farther. And it would mean that in 15 years, global leaders will have done four-times more good. That is a worthwhile legacy.
Dr. Bjorn Lomborg directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which ranks the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit. His new book is “The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World”.