Event ReportsPublished on Jan 07, 2015
We risk missing out on a generational opportunity to shape global development through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In a talk at ORF, Dr. Bjon Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus think tank presented a critical evaluation of the 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets.
The Smartest Targets for the World: Dr. Bjorn Lomborg

The world is currently in the process of negotiating a common development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the moment, the discussions and outcomes surrounding this post-2015 consensus have manifested themselves in the form of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. The adoption of the SDGs is expected to take place at the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, making 2015 a monumental year in the context of international development.

Among the academics, advisors, and policymakers who are raising concerns over the deliberation of the post-2015 development agenda is Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, heading the Copenhagen Consensus, a top ranked think tank researching the smartest ways to make the world better. On July 1, 2015, Dr. Lomborg, who is one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and has repeatedly been named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, gave a talk at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Delhi, assessing the current delineation of the SDGs and highlighting some of the most effective targets as well as the more inefficient ones.

Dr. Vikrom Mathur, a Senior Fellow at ORF chairing the event, opened the talk by introducing Dr. Lomborg, and referring to his role as one of the most prominent voices questioning the wide proliferation of SDGs and urging a consideration of how to focus on the most cost effective targets.

Dr. Lomborg began by stressing the significance of the SDGs, presenting them as a wonderful opportunity to bring together 193 governments and discuss the future development agenda. Despite the pivotal nature of the post-2015 consensus, he notes, most people have little to no idea that this is happening. This lack of awareness is especially disconcerting given the estimated $2 trillion in development aid to be distributed in the next 15 years. Reflecting on the MDGs, Dr. Lomborg lauded the simple and smart nature of the targets (18 targets with 374 words), but identified the lack of open dialogue in their formation as a serious concern. Contrastingly, he commended the SDGs on them being open to public discussion, while criticizing the verbose and confusing nature of the goals (169 targets with 4369 words).

Dr. Lomborg went on to introduce the Copenhagen Consensus Centre’s Post-2015 Consensus project, a venture that has brought together 82 economists and 44 sector experts to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the SDGs by major topic areas. The goal of this research was to evaluate the potential efficiency of targets across economic, social, and environmental dimensions, putting "all the social costs and benefits in a common denominator of dollars or rupees."

Dr. Lomborg then moved into a presentation of the findings by describing some of the ’smart targets’ (best performing in terms of social benefit created per dollar spent), as well as the ’stupid’ ones, in various fields. The first of the findings from Copenhagen Consensus’ project to be discussed was the potentially substantial impact of completing the Doha round on global free trade. Despite costing around $250 billion, the Post-2015 Consensus report estimates ensuing benefits of a staggering $500,000 billion. This would mean an additional $1000 per person in the developing world, lifting up to 160 million people out of poverty by today’s standards. Overall, completing the Doha round is estimated to provide a sizeable $2000 of social benefit per dollar spent.

Potentially controversial findings were also brought up, in addition to the more expected or familiar results. Although Dr. Lomborg indicated that the statistics champion the provision of contraception to 215 million women around the world (receiving around $120 worth of social benefits back on each dollar), he also pointed that according to the Copenhagen Consensus’ analysis, directly addressing child marriage is not very efficient, as large sums are spent in the dissemination of information without any significant results.

Dr. Lomborg condensed his think tank’s comprehensive study and identified several highly impactful targets already present in the SDGs (in terms of their ’bang for the buck’), including the promotion of immunization against diseases like hepatitis, adequate nutrition for children between 0-2 years of age, and easier migration. However, he went on to explain that certain less cost effective targets that may be considered equally important, including the provision of HIV medication, weigh these smart targets down in terms of efficacy of the SDGs as a whole. As a result, Dr. Lomborg advocated more indirect approaches to issues like child marriage and HIV/AIDS. At the same time, he admitted that there was no easy or comforting way to respond to ethical dilemmas such as whether it is better to save four people from tuberculosis or malaria than saving a single person from AIDS at the same cost.

To conclude his individual presentation, Dr. Lomborg brought to attention some of the next steps taken in the Post-2015 Consensus project. Information from the research is available in 24 countries, while articles summarizing the study have been published in over 80 countries. A panel of Nobel laureates was also consulted and asked to come up with a shortlist of the smartest targets in their opinion. The panel’s total of 19 targets (as opposed to the 169 set forth by the SDGs) was reminiscent of the MDGs in its brevity. In Dr. Lomborg’s view, these smart goals represented more realistic and quantifiable aims for the next 15 years, with objectives such as "lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%" instead of the loftier "eradicate hunger" by 2030. He went on to advocate specificity, addressing some of the UN’s previous targets as setting us up for failure, even though they reflected good sentiments.

Admitting that the panel of Nobel laureates represented a very particular portion of the world population, Dr. Lomborg also shed light on efforts to engage a wider audience in discussions of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre’s project. These included youth forums, capitol briefings, and journalist briefings. In summary, Dr. Lomborg put forth his argument with respect to the generational opportunity offered by the deliberation and formation of the SDG document quite bluntly, stating - "there are a lot of smart things we can do but there are a lot of stupid things we can do too."

After this presentation, Dr. Mathur opened up the session to questions from the audience. Apart from concerns over the methodology utilized by the Copenhagen Consensus, many of the questions brought up public administration and governance as areas that were neglected to a certain degree by the project. Another recurring qualm was related to the distribution of benefits and costs. Responding to these, Dr. Lomborg spoke about how the study, despite not factoring in equity or the impact of corruption, remained an important tool for negotiators, its findings much like the prices one considers when choosing from a menu of policies.

(The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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