By: Bjorn Lomborg
In principle, dealing with all the world’s woes should be simple. We ought to deal with them all.
We should win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water and protection against natural disasters, step up education and halt climate change.
But we don’t. More than 30 years ago, the United Nations called on the developed countries to double the percentage of money they spent on overseas development aid, but the sad fact is that since 1965 the percentage has been halved.
Some seem to believe that this merely shows that we should redouble our efforts to get the international community to increase its funding. I applaud this effort, and think it is necessary to keep up the political pressure. But I also think we need to get realistic and admit that we will not be getting close to doing all the good things any time soon.
In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, there is a strong sense that our first priority should be investing in wave stations and an elaborate alert system, making the Asian countries better able to deal with a potential tsunami. However compassionate this may seem, it may not be our best first priority. First, strong tsunamis hit only rarely – the last major Indian Ocean tsunami happened in 1883. Second, there are many other concerns that need to be addressed.
Every year, about three million people die in Southeast Asia from infectious and parasitic diseases – most of these curable with cheaply available medical technologies. In any three weeks, more people will have suffered these simply preventable deaths than the total death toll of the tsunami disaster.
Before we embark on a costly alert system, we should consider if the resources could be better spent on higher priorities.
In short, we have to ask the hard question: If we don’t do it all, what should we do first? We live in a world with limited resources. That means we have a moral obligation to spend each dollar doing the most good that we possibly can. We need to start talking about prioritization.
Surprisingly, such an explicit economic prioritization hasn’t been done before. Why? I think there is a good deal of resentment about the whole idea that we need to prioritize.
Prioritization is seen as bad, because whenever we prioritize we not only say where we should do more (which is good) but also where we should not at first increase our efforts (which is seen to be cynical).
This view puzzles me; not talking about prioritization does not make it go away, it only becomes less clear, less democratic and less efficient. Refusing to prioritize, dealing mainly with the problems with the most buzz is wrong.
Imagine doctors at a perpetually overrun hospital refusing to perform triage on casualties, merely attending patients as they arrived, fast-tracking those whose families made the most fuss. Not prioritizing is unjust, wastes resources and costs lives.
This means we must carefully examine where we can do the most good with the dollars we invest. At the 2004 Copenhagen Consensus project, 30 specialist economists joined forces with eight of the world’s top economists – including three Nobel Laureates – to make such a global priority list.
The top priority is to prevent HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive program would cost $27 billion yet the social benefits would be immense; it would avoid more than 38 million new cases of HIV/AIDS by 2010. This makes it the best investment the world could possibly make, reaping benefits that outweigh the costs by 40 to 1.
Similarly, providing micronutrients missing from more than half the world’s diet would reduce diseases caused by iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A deficiency with an exceptionally high ratio of benefits to cost.
If we could only find the political will, establishing free trade could be achieved at a very low cost, with benefits of up to $2.4 trillion a year.
Dealing with malaria would create benefits at least five times the costs. Mosquito nets and effective medication could halve the incidence of malaria and would cost $13 billion.
The list goes on to focus on agricultural technologies to tackle hunger and water technologies to handle food production and the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.
If the Copenhagen Consensus showed us what we should be doing, it also showed what shouldn’t be done right now. The experts rated responses to climate change extremely low on the “To Do” list. In fact the panel called these ventures – including the Kyoto Protocol – “Bad Projects” simply because they cost more than the good they do.
Again this does not mean that we should ignore climate change. We should, for example, be looking at the right mix of incentives and regulations to encourage investment in promising new renewable energy technologies. But when we have scarce resources we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to do a lot of good now, or a little good, much later? We need to ask if we can do more for the developing world by investing differently.
Far from suggesting laissez-faire, this question addresses the pressing problem of prioritization head on. Why did thousands die in Haiti during the recent hurricanes and not in Florida? Because Haitians are poor. They cannot take preventative measures.
Likewise, with the tsunami, casualties were by far greatest in the highly impoverished areas – the coast of eastern Sri Lanka and south eastern India, and the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. Australia, on the other hand, had wave stations and warning systems in place, as do most of the rich Pacific Rim countries.
Breaking the circle of poverty by addressing the most pressing issues of disease, hunger and polluted water will not only do obvious good, but also make people less vulnerable both to natural disasters and the long-term effects of climate change.
The urgent problem of the poor majority of this world is not climate change. Their problems are truly very basic. Not dying from easily preventable diseases. Not being malnourished form lack of simple micronutrients. Not being prevented from exploiting opportunities the global economy by lack of free trade.
We can prevent HIV by handing out condoms, and improving health education. We can prevent millions dying form malnutrition by simple vitamin supplements.
These are not space-age technologies, but simple necessities that the world needs. The message from the Copenhagen Consensus is that it is possible to solve some of the most serious challenges the world faces – and that it not only is morally urgent but also a very good investment to do so.
We need to start doing the best things first.