It’s Halftime for the Sustainable Development Goals. Are They Achievable?
Danish author Bjorn Lomborg argues the United Nations promised too much — and recommends 12 priorities.
Next week, world leaders will meet in New York for the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, marking the halfway point for the sprawlingly ambitous 15-year global-development agenda set in 2016. The sustainable development goals, or SDGs, encompass 169 targets across 17 goals covering everything from eliminating hunger and improving educational quality to protection of the oceans and land. There’s a lot of work left to be done.
In his new book “Best Things First,” Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, makes the simple argument that our efforts to do good are often hampered by wanting to achieve too much at once. “Saying everything is a priority means nothing is a priority,” he says.
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This week, world leaders will meet in New York for the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, marking the halfway point for the sprawling, ambitious 15-year global-development agenda set in 2016.
The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, encompass 169 targets across 17 goals including eliminating hunger, improving educational quality, and protection of the oceans and land.
Philanthropy plays an important role in supporting these goals, both by providing resources to supplement to the work of governments, and through outreach and advocacy. Research from Candid found that U.S.-based foundations contributed $217 billion focused on the SDGs from 2016 to 2020 alone.
U.N. officials say the world is nowhere near to achieving those goals. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2023 Goalkeepers Report, which tracks progress toward the SDGs, also found that the world is short of meeting its targets.
That’s also the premise of a new book, “Best Things First,” by Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Danish think tank Copenhagen Consensus Center. He argues that global efforts to do good are often hampered by wanting to achieve too much at once. “Saying everything is a priority means nothing is a priority,” he says.
“Having so many targets wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if the world were stepping up to fund all of them. But it’s not. Despite record commitments from donors, one report recently found that the funding for the goals will be short at least $10 trillion to $15 trillion each year for the rest of this decade. That’s roughly equivalent to all of the taxes collected by every government in the world,” Lomborg wrote in a recent op-ed with Bill Gates.
“Best Things First” relies on peer-reviewed economics research and benefit-cost analysis to calculate how much in total benefits society gets for each dollar spent on a given solution. Based on that analysis, Lomborg proposes 12 solutions that philanthropy, governments, or corporations could pursue to achieve the biggest bang for their buck. The studies undergirding each chapter were published in Cambridge University Press’s Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis.
The solutions include distributing more anti-malaria bed nets and coupling that with public education so that people know how to properly use them and investing in efforts proven to reduce maternal and newborn mortality.
For about $35 billion in additional spending per year, he writes, governments, philanthropists, and businesses can help save 4.2 million lives annually in low- and middle-income countries, while providing the poorer half of the world with more than a trillion dollars in economic benefit. But that requires making tough choices about how money is spent.
“Private philanthropy could, by itself, pick up a significant part of the cost for these 12 great solutions,” he writes.
Not everything Lomborg writes has been well received. A political scientist by training, his 1998 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was criticized for downplaying the risks of climate change. Scientists said his contrarian writing misrepresented their work and made claims that run counter to scientific consensus.
In Best Things First, Lomborg acknowledges that climate is a concern, but climate solutions don’t make his list of 12 top policies. “There’s a lot of things that you can do for climate, but it doesn’t deliver nearly the same sort of bang for your buck,” he says.
Lomborg spoke with the Chronicle about the ways donors can help push for effective spending, how his approach differs from the effective altruists’, and his expectations for this week’s SDG Summit at the U.N. General Assembly.
Why did you write this book now?
Back in the early 2000s, the United Nations made these global promises called the Millennium Development Goals. They were basically set by a bunch of men in a back room together with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who decided this was what the world should focus on. We should stop moms from dying. We should stop kids from dying. We should stop people from being hungry. We should stop them from being poor. We should get kids into school and get clean drinking water and sanitation. We spent a lot more money and we actually managed to do a lot of stuff.
Since then, the world decided, let’s do another set of goals. USAID and most donors in the U.S. are totally bought into this. They’re called the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, instead of saying, let’s do these simple, smart things that are incredibly effective, we essentially ended up saying, let’s promise everything to everyone, all the time, everywhere.
September 2023 is halftime and we’re nowhere near halfway.
Many of the solutions you highlight seem intended for government. What role do you see for individual philanthropists and foundations in supporting your 12 proposed solutions?
Fundamentally, this is about getting good arguments and good policies in front of policymakers, in front of big philanthropies and organizations like the USAIDs of the world, and all the poor country governments that are actually spending a lot of money on their citizens. That’s something that all philanthropies can help work on.
On the education front, developing countries have doubled their spending on education over the last 15 years, and we can’t tell the difference in outcomes. We need to make sure when kids are in school they actually learn, which of course will help both them and their family down the line, but also their whole society and make the world a much better place.
One of the things that works is to teach kids at their level. Ideally, teachers should be doing that, but of course you can’t in a classroom with 40 or more kids. But a tablet can. For just one hour a day, give them a tablet that they will share with many others, with educational software. For just one year, the interventions we propose would generate learning equivalent to 1.2 more years of standard schooling for every year they are deployed.
This is not something that you need to convince everyone to do everywhere in the world. A philanthropist can take these 12 ideas and say, I want to help in country X, or just in this region, or I want to help the main government of that country to focus on this issue.
You contrast the relative success of the limited Millennium Development Goals with the broad scope of the Sustainable Development Goals. Are there specific success stories from that earlier era you’d point to where philanthropy can take a leadership role in organizing aid?
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is probably the best example. That was started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners and provided about half of all development aid for vaccines in the first 17 years of this century.
We know that just getting many more vaccines out for these very, very simple childhood diseases is incredibly important. If you don’t get measles vaccinations, a lot of kids are going to die. We estimate Gavi saved about 2 million kids by itself. That’s a fantastic story.
Are there solutions that work now that philanthropy should adopt?
Almost all of them have that potential. Take trade, which is the least obvious. Trade is something the governments decide. It has real downsides, but fundamentally has much bigger upsides.
Even for the U.S. and other rich countries, for every dollar that there are increased costs from job losses or relearning another trade, you also gain more than $7. For poor countries, trade is just fantastic. For every dollar spent, there is a benefit of a totally amazing $95 back on the dollar. Philanthropy could help push this message into the world through op-eds, through organizations that fund research.
We found that when donors help health ministries show finance ministries that childhood immunizations, malaria prevention, and tuberculosis treatment can make their country richer, it becomes a lot easier to make the case. More information can help the ministries to make better presentations so that more money gets better spent. That’s a way to leverage your private philanthropy.
In some ways, your benefit-cost framework for prioritizing where to spend money sounds similar to effective altruism, a movement that aspires to find the most cost-effective ways to tackle the world’s problems. In what ways do you differ?
We’re fundamentally in the same sort of head space. Effective altruism basically says, if you want to do good, do good smart. That’s a great idea. What separates [the Copenhagen Consensus Center and the economists who produced this research]from effective altruism is two things.
Some effective altruists are more focused on philosophy and intriguing questions. Like if you want to help animals, why is it almost everyone writes checks to dog and cat shelters when the vast number of animals are cows and pigs and poultry? That’s a great idea, but there’s still about 18 million people that die each year absolutely unnecessarily — why don’t we first prioritize that?
Some effective altruists focus on the very far off future and say the future is as equally important as the present. They end up focusing on extinction, threats from A.I., those kinds of things. I’m very, very happy that some people are looking at it. But most people don’t think this way. Most people don’t want to eat porridge every day and save all their money for their descendants. We care moderately about the future. We leave them hopefully with better infrastructure, with much more capital, with a lot more knowledge, and then basically we wish them good luck. We don’t try to solve their problems.
I think we are sort of real-world effect altruists. The present is more important than the future. We still find that education is an incredible investment, despite the fact that investing now in education only makes benefits 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years from now. But because those benefits are so enormous, it’s still a great idea.
Explain why you didn’t put climate mitigation policies or water and sanitation projects on your list of 12 proposals. Aren’t those incredibly important?
There are lots of things that are problematic in the world. There are also lots of solutions, but not all solutions are equally good. Some are very effective. That is, for every dollar spent, they will deliver a lot of good that could be saving lives or making people better off or making the environment better.
The outcomes we’re showing for these 12 policies return $52 worth of good for every dollar spent on average. Typically, we find that every dollar spent on sanitation water will deliver $3 back on the dollar. If you look at the costs, they’re enormous. This does not mean that sanitation and clean water is not a good idea.
The same thing with climate. It’s not that climate is not a real problem. Climate adaptation delivers probably $2 or $3 back into the dollar. Renewable energy can deliver up to $6 back on the dollar. So there’s a lot of reasonably good investments here, but most of the benefit comes far, far into the future when you’re talking about climate change.
What do you expect — or hope — will come of this week’s SDG Summit? What will give us a better shot at meeting the 2030 goals?
All the leaders are going to meet up and they’re basically going to face the fact that they didn’t do very well. Politicians don’t like that. They’re going to say lots of excuses — Covid, climate, Ukraine, the whole shebang. They’re going to say it just means we need to recommit. The U.N. has basically said, let’s find another $500 billion. They call it a stimulus package for the SDGs.
The real cost of all the SDGs is probably 20 times that — $10 trillion or more additional. This is pretty much the entire tax revenue of the entire world that we would have to spend more. That’s not going to happen. The reality is we promised way too much and the sooner we start realizing that, the better.
What I’m trying to get people to do, and I think there’s a small chance that we can do a little bit of this is to say, look, we’re not going to give another $500 billion, but there is a chance that we’re going to, say, give, $35 billion more. For that amount of money, you could actually solve a large chunk of humanity’s problems.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.