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Opinion | Bjorn Lomborg

UN ambassador can reset development agenda

In this photo taken March 26, children receive a portion of cooked grains during a lunchtime feeding program initiative launched by UNICEF and the World Food Programme, in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, South Sudan. Sam Mednick/AP Photo/Associated Press

America’s new United Nations ambassador, Kelly Craft, has an opportunity to help refocus global development efforts, using US clout to ensure every dollar spent does more to help people and the planet.

Craft is taking her position at a pivotal time, four years after the ratification of the

Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, the development agenda up to the year 2030. With little more than one decade left, implementation desperately needs shaking up.

The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which the SDGs replaced, worked because there were just nine key promises, including halving the proportions of people in poverty and those going hungry, and cutting child mortality by two-thirds. This sharp focus ensured more money went to the most important areas. At least 21 million more people are alive today as a result.


When the MDGs ended, everyone had an opinion about what should go into the SDGs, and nobody wanted to take anything off the table. World leaders ratified a completely unmanageable list of 169 development targets. These targets range from the vital (end malnutrition by 2030) to the nice-to-have (green spaces in every city for women, children, the elderly, and disabled), and from the noble (universal education) to the impossible (full employment for all).

This creates three problems.

First, the targets are too numerous and complex to be monitored. Many countries have massive data limitations, and few if any are collecting comprehensive information on every single target.

Second, trying to achieve all of them is prohibitively expensive: Annual estimates range from $1.4 trillion to an unfathomable $30 trillion, with $5 trillion being likely. The entire world’s foreign aid adds up to less than 3 percent.

The third and biggest problem is that the list doesn’t tell us which areas we should focus on. Meaningful development targets are wedged between the unachievable and the irrelevant. Targets like developing tools to monitor sustainable tourism should not be prioritized over challenges like malnutrition, poverty, or lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.


To bring order to this confusion, Craft should call on all nations to prioritize the most powerful targets — and the United States should lead by example.

We know that far too little money is being spent to achieve all the targets, so clearly governments and donors are already making their own decisions about which targets to prioritize. The US could help by pushing for more transparency on which targets will deliver the most benefit for every rupee, shilling, peso, or dollar spent.

A starting point is the list of 19 best-buy targets identified by Nobel laureate economists for my think tank, Copenhagen Consensus. They considered a long list of cost-benefit findings from top economists who studied each of the SDG areas.

The Nobel laureates found that investment in child nutrition has incredible results: Children do better at school, lead more prosperous lives, and are more likely, as grownups, to raise well-fed, healthy children. The analysis reveals that every dollar spent on nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can return benefits to all of society worth around $45, and this can be as high as $166.

Tuberculosis requires the world’s attention. The world’s biggest infectious killer, in 2017 it received just 4.6 percent of development assistance for health, a paltry $1.7 billion, with only $50 million specifically set aside for diagnosis. Reducing TB deaths by 90 percent would result in 1.3 million fewer deaths. The benefits to society would be worth $43 for every dollar spent.


One area where the United States is already focusing attention is empowerment of women. The Nobel laureate panel found that focusing on the elimination of violence against women and girls is vital for both moral and economic reasons. Research reveals the welfare cost of violence against women and children is equivalent to 9 percent of global GDP.

Expanding contraception and family planning access is also important. More than 200 million women still lack access to modern contraception. Getting near-universal access to family planning has an annual price tag of $3.6 billion, but allowing women more control over pregnancy would mean 150,000 fewer maternal deaths and 600,000 fewer orphaned children, along with considerable economic benefits. The return to society is 120 times the costs.

And the most powerful policy that could be pursued to reduce poverty — albeit one that may not curry favor with the current White House — is the promotion of free trade. Resurrecting the Doha free trade deal would make the world $11 trillion richer each and every year by 2030, with much of this going to the world’s poorest.

Among environmental targets, the Nobel laureates found that protecting coral reefs is extraordinarily effective. In addition to biodiversity benefits, healthy reefs increase tourism and fish stocks, benefitting fishermen.


The development agenda needs an overhaul. The Nobel laureates found that money spent on the 19 most powerful targets would achieve the same as quadrupling global aid spending. That would be an incredibly powerful legacy for the new ambassador.

Bjorn Lomborg is president and founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.