In the corridors at the UN summit in New York, it is evident that everyone wants different things out of the next set of global development goals. Yet, every leader at the podium is telling us how great the development targets will be for humanity and the planet.
But let’s take a step back and consider the people who are not attending the fancy meetings in Manhattan.
Over the past few months, the Copenhagen Consensus Center has worked with local researchers and journalists to give a voice to those who are not invited to the podium here in New York City.
One story that resonated with me, from the moment I heard it, is that of Khalida Dilawar, who lives in an informal settlement called Naeem Gardens in Shahdarh Town in northern Lahore, Pakistan.
It is an area of endemic poverty, in a country where the World Bank estimates 22% are poor. Malnutrition is a daily challenge – the locals even have their own word, sooka, for the symptoms of severe malnutrition.
When we spoke to the 25-year-old homemaker and mother-of-five Khalida Dilawar in Punjabi in August, she told us that her youngest daughter Amana – aged under two – was suffering from sooka.
“My little daughter is very sick,” she said. “With every passing day she is losing weight. She has been floppy for quite some time now, and she is getting skinnier, which is very worrying for me.”
The child was pale, underweight, thin, lacking strength, and drowsy; her hair was brittle. Amana’s only source of nourishment is her mother’s breast milk. The family’s income doesn’t stretch to milk or butter. “I don’t eat much,” Khalida says. The family survives on her husband’s income of about 500 Rupees a day ($4.80) as a rickshaw driver.
“We save some money every day, and when a handsome amount is collected, we buy fruit once in a month or two. Now this is not possible, because we need some money for the treatment of our daughter.”
When asked about her priorities, Khalida has basic hopes. “Food is a major concern,” she says. “My aspirations are that my kids must acquire the best education. I want to own a house, where we can live a healthy life.” Khalida is not alone in pointing out that health is a top priority.
Actually, these goals are similar to those that we heard from almost all of our interview subjects, whether in Kenya, Belize or the Philippines. And they reflect the findings of a UN survey that asked people to rank their top priorities ahead of the Global Goals. More than 8 million people have answered so far, and the top priorities – out of 16 choices – are better education and healthcare, and greater food security.
Copenhagen Consensus research shows that helping with malnutrition is one of the best forms of development assistance. Better nutrition results in better brain growth. With a small investment now, Amana, and those like her, are then more likely to stay in school longer and learn more. Experience shows that, because nutrition made her education better, her adult income could soar 60% higher than it would otherwise be. This could essentially mean that Amana’s children in turn will not have to suffer from malnutrition.
When our researchers calculated the benefits in economic terms of focusing on malnutrition development targets, they found that each dollar spent on such interventions would result in about $45 of good return to society.
Malnutrition and health are on the agenda here at the United Nations. But with 169 targets, they get lost among everything else – like the targets that name-check sustainable tourism and artisanal fisheries and the benefits of good jobs for every last person on the planet.
Here in New York, there is a lot of goodwill, a lot of engaging words, and a lot of people who want to do everything possible. But money spent on fairly inefficient targets is money that cannot be spent helping Amana in the ways that would make the most difference.
Amana is the reason we need to prioritise our targets much better, so that 15 years from now, she will have a markedly better story to tell than her mother.
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”