Smarter targets for the UN: The best thing any of us can do

An oil pump in Texas, United States. Removing fossil fuel subsidies in developing countries is a “green target” — something that will cost little but do more. Photo by: Paul Lowry / CC BY

Right now, the United Nations is negotiating one of the world’s potentially most powerful policy documents. It can influence trillions of dollars, pull hundreds of millions out of poverty and hunger, reduce violence and improve education — essentially make the world a better place. But much depends on this being done well.

We’ve done this before. In September 2000, 100 heads of state and 47 heads of government laid the foundation for the Millennium Development Goals. These goals were unique because they were short, specific and very simple development targets everyone could relate to — and because they had a clear deadline for 2015. In short, world leaders had made real, verifiable promises. And although we didn’t meet all goals, they helped push us to a much, much better place.

But with the MDGs ending in 2015, we have to ask what’s next.

The United Nations has started an inclusive process from the 2012 Rio Earth summit to define so-called sustainable development goals for 2016-2030. So, over 10 months, countries, missions, U.N. organizations and nongovernmental organizations will perform a complex dance to determine — and hopefully whittle down — the next set of targets.

Given that these could end up determining a large part of the period’s $2.5 trillion development aid, it is not surprising that everyone wants their favorite topic on the books. Right now, there are more than 1,400 targets proposed. Having 1,400 priorities is like having none at all.

We can do better. And that is why my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has engaged in a project to determine which targets will do the most good per dollar spent. Sixty-two teams of international top economists will estimate the costs and benefits of about 50 targets, taking into account not just the economic, but also health, social and environmental benefits to the world. U.N. agencies, NGOs and businesses in both the “global south” and “global north” will write commentaries on the findings. And three Nobel laureates will evaluate the economic evidence to classify all targets from best to worst.

Imagine taking the U.N. document and overlaying it graphically with economic evidence. Highlight the very best targets with green — the targets that will cost little but do more than 15 times as much economic, social and environmental good. Paint the fair targets yellow — targets that still do more good than they cost. And color the poor targets red — the targets that will cost more than the good they provide for the world. Backed by thousands of pages of peer reviewed economic research, such simplistic traffic light markings could crucially help the world’s busy decision-makers focus on picking the most effective targets.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done with the final document of the U.N. Working Group on the SDGs that proposes 169 targets. This document highlights a number of great, green targets and also warns the U.N. negotiators of some very poor red targets. Although the document has been revelatory in the polite U.N. context, it has crucially pointed out that not all targets are equally good.

Reducing malaria and tuberculosis is a phenomenal target, preliminarily painted green. Its costs are small because solutions are simple, cheap and well-documented. Its benefits are large, not only because it avoids death and prolonged, agonizing sickness, but also improves societal productivity and initiates a virtuous circle.

Removing fossil fuel subsidies in developing countries is another preliminary green. In some poor countries, gasoline is sold for a few cents per liter mostly to the benefit of middle- and high-income groups with cars. Reducing subsidies would stop wasting resources, send the right price signals and reduce the strain on government budgets, while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

On the other hand, HIV eradication is both hard and much less effective. Because of the higher costs and lifelong treatment, it is only yellow, not green.

And doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030 sounds good but turns out to be a bright red. It is an expensive way to cut just a little carbon dioxide and doesn’t tackle the problem of indoor air pollution from stoves, heaters and fridges, which affects almost half the world’s population. To help them, we should rather focus on getting more cheap energy to poor people, which is a proven way to reduce indoor air pollution, increase growth and alleviate poverty.

Painting targets in red throughout the document was uncomfortable for the promoters of these targets, but also a real eye-opener. As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said: “I really don’t like you putting one of my favorite targets in red — but we all really need to hear economic evidence that challenges us.” Placing other targets in green was obviously welcomed and quickly turned into ammunition to keep or bolster these targets.

Now, economics is not the only measure of what the global society should choose for its priorities for the next 15 years, just like prices and sizes on a menu don’t dictate what you should choose. But they are an important part of the information. Documenting the costs and benefits for the main U.N. targets will provide headwind to poor targets and tail wind to smart ones.

If well-documented economic arguments can help to swap just one poor target for one phenomenal one, leveraging trillions of dollars in development aid and government spending can make a world of difference. Imagine being able to provide the arguments to redirect at least $20 billion that would have been spent on one poor target over the next 15 years to a good target, doing $26 of good per dollar spent. Then we will help achieve $500 billion more good in the world. That is quite likely the best thing any of us can help achieve this next year.

Read more about Bjorn Lomborg’s views on crafting better development goals in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, and listen to this podcast to hear his ideas on how development aid money should be spent post-2015.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Bjorn Lomborg

    Bjorn Lomborg is the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is the author of the best-selling book "The Skeptical Environmentalist." His most recent essay, “Promises to Keep: Crafting Better Development Goals,” is published on the November/December 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs.