As curtain falls on MDGs, what next?

Termed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and one of the 50 people who could save the planet (UK Guardian), Dr Lomborg is the President of Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a top-ranked think tank researching the smartest ways to make the world better.

Recently, the professor was in Kenya to meet journalists and other stakeholders ahead of the September New York world meeting where a new set of goals for 2016-2030 shall be adopted by United Nations’ countries.

The new set of 169 goals now termed as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shall replace eight Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire this year.

“Studies by Copenhagen Consensus show that if the U.N. focused on only 19 of the most efficient projects, each dollar of development spending would do four times more good,” said Dr. Lomborg.

The scholar, who is one of the most influential people of the 21st century according to Esquire Magazine argues that 169 targets are too many and would be cost-ineffective.

He spoke to James Ratemo of

Q. Do you expect the Millennium Development Goals will be achieved?

A. The beauty of the MDGs was that they were short, specific and very simple development targets everyone could relate to — and they had a clear deadline for 2015. In short, world leaders had made real, verifiable promises. And although we won’t meet all goals, they helped push us to a much, much better place. The promise to halve the proportion of the world’s hungry is a case in point. In 1990, the baseline year for all the targets, almost 24 percent of those living in the developing world were starving. By 2012, that figure has fallen to roughly 15 percent. If current trends hold, it will reach 12.2 percent by the end of 2015, just shy of the goal.

Do the Sustainable Development Goals for 2016-2030 have any chance to become reality? Or is it just wishful thinking?

The MDGs worked because they were few and sharp — just 374 words that changed the world. This time, the United Nations has sought to make the process more inclusive, asking for input from stakeholders around the world. Given that these goals will influence how trillions of dollars in development aid are spent, plus trillions more in national budgets, every interest group hopes to get its target included in the final document. As a result, in its latest iteration the United Nations has proposed 169 targets, running to 4,369 words. Some of the proposed targets that range from the ambitious (“end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria”) to the peripheral (“promote sustainable tourism”) to the impossible (“by 2030 achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities”). 169 targets won’t become reality. Promising everything to everyone gives us no direction. Having 169 priorities is like having none at all.

But fewer goals would leave out important problems. What makes it better having fewer goals?

We need to realize that we have limited resources that won’t allow us to solve all of the world’s problems in the next 15 years. Policymakers and international organizations must ask themselves: Where can we do the most good? If we spend money on targets that do little good, that money can’t be spend on targets that will do a lot of good. Yes, our list of targets will not solve all the world’s problems, but neither will any list under realistic budgets.

We estimate that if you spend $1 billion evenly across the current 169 targets you will do $7 billion of good. This is because most money will be spent on so-so targets, a little wasted on really poor targets and a little will go to the really amazing targets, doing most of the good.

If we instead focused on just the 19 best targets, our billion dollars would do about $32 billion of good. We could do more than four times as much good with each dollar.

So, we’re simply saying we should forgo the instant gratification of promising everything to everyone, and instead focus on choosing the best targets first.

You say focussing on the 19 goals that Copenhagen Consensus identified would generate the most benefit for aid money. What makes you sure that your goals are the best?

Over the past 6 months, we have published more than 100 peer-reviewed analyses from 82 of the world’s top economists and 44 sector experts along with many UN agencies and NGOs. These have established how effective more than 100 targets would be in terms of value-for-money, taking into account not just the economic, but also health, social and environmental benefits to the world. An Expert Panel including two Nobel Laureates has reviewed this research and identified 19 targets that represent the best value-for-money in development over the period 2016 to 2030, offering more than $15 back on every aid dollar invested.


  • Lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%
  • Halve malaria infection
  • Reduce TB deaths by 90%
  • Avoid 1.1 million HIV infections through circumcision
  • Cut early death from chronic disease by 1/3
  • Reduce newborn mortality by 70%
  • Increase immunization to reduce child deaths by 25%
  • Make family planning available to everyone
  • Eliminate violence against women and girls


  • Phase out fossil fuel subsidies
  • Halve coral reef loss
  • Tax pollution damage from energy
  • Cut indoor pollution by 20%


  • Reduce trade restrictions (full Doha)
  • Improve gender equality in ownership, business and politics
  • Boost agricultural yield growth by 40%
  • Increase girls’ education by two years
  • Achieve universal primary education in SSA
  • Triple pre-school in SSA

The expert analyses suggest that if the UN concentrates on these 19 top targets, every dollar spent will create $32 of benefits, as opposed to just $7 when spent evenly across all 169 targets. Being smart about spending could be better than doubling or quadrupling the aid budget.

Many green thinking people say that growth is the problem. You say growth is the solution. Isn’t global warming the proof that we must stop growth?

No. Let me give you one example: When typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it killed thousands, because of poverty: flimsy houses that were swept away, inadequate shelters and poor planning.  It is a pattern we know only too well. When a hurricane hits rich Florida, it makes significant damage, but kills few people. When a similar hurricane hits poor Nicaragua, it destroys the economy and kills tens of thousands. Yet, many of the world's top opinion leaders have not talked about poverty but rather linked Haiyan to global warming, focusing on cutting CO2. Irrespective of how little global warming contributed to the typhoon – and there is no indication of an increasing number of hurricanes around the Philippines or even globally – cutting CO2 is one of the least effective ways to help. If we want to help, it is all about poverty. In the medium term it is about ensuring better shelters, warning systems, evacuation plans and emergency relief. And in the long run, it is about making sure Filipinos emerge from poverty, so they can move from being vulnerable like Nicaraguans to being well-protected like Floridians.

People who are concerned about climate change argue that the best way to help developing countries is investing in wind and solar energy and other measures to stop global warming. You say they are wrong. Why?

Over the past 30 years, China has lifted 680 million people out of extreme poverty, using cheap if polluting coal. Telling China to slow down that process with immature and expensive renewables is not likely to succeed. With 800 million people in extreme poverty in India and Africa, expecting these countries to go renewable is plainly wishful thinking.

I am concerned how many Westerners climb on the high horse and make such recommendations for developing countries without even having an idea of what it’s like to have no access to electricity whatsoever, as 1.3 billion people on the globe do. Why don’t we ask the experts on the ground? The president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, recently defended his bank’s decision to continue financing coal-fired power plants, despite pressure from UN officials and environmental groups to fund cleaner energy instead. He said: “It is hypocritical for western governments who have funded their industrialisation using fossil fuels, providing their citizens with enough power, to say to African countries, ‘You cannot develop dams, you cannot develop coal, just rely on these very expensive renewables’.”

A study from the Center for Global Development quantifies our disregard of the world’s poor. Investing in renewables, we can pull one person out of darkness and consequently poverty for about $500. But, using gas electrification, we could pull more than four people out of darkness for the same amount. By focusing on our climate concerns, we deliberately choose to leave more than three out of four people in darkness and poverty.

In the past you argued that wind and solar energy is too expensive. But they have become much cheaper in the past decade.

They are still very expensive though. The easiest way to see this is that almost all of them still require substantial subsidies. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world right now spends $120 billion each year in renewable subsidies. And even in an optimistic and green scenario, IEA estimates that subsidy cost won’t go away. It will escalate to $200 billion every year by 2040. Moreover, we are getting little energy for our money. Solar and wind produce only 0.4 percent of all energy in the world today, and by 2040, even with an exceedingly optimistic scenario where all the world’s governments will fulfil all their green promises, we will see solar and wind producing just 2.2 percent of the world’s energy. We cannot ignore these inconvenient realities. Instead of subsidizing today’s uneconomic technologies, we should focus on increasing public investment in green R&D to ensure the next generations of green technologies will eventually become so cheap that everyone, including Africa, China and India, will switch.

At the same time, and this is crucially one of our top 19 recommendations, we need to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. This will also facilitate the switch to cleaner energies, and it will free up much needed resources for health, nutrition and education in developing countries, where these subsidies are largely concentrated.

Some people criticised in the past that you focussed exclusively on human development and neglect the environment. The new 19 goals include four environmental ones. But these are others then we usually hear about in the media. Why do you think that saving coral reefs and cut indoor pollution are especially important?

I’ve not neglected environmental problems, simply pointed out that we need to focus on the most important ones. Indoor air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental killer, although most people have never heard of it.

It comes from 2.8 billion people still using firewood, dung and coal for cooking and keeping warm. This means terrible indoor air pollution, equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes each day for almost half this world’s population. The World Health Organization estimates that indoor air pollution kills 4.3 million people each year. With improved cooking stoves and the provision of LPG or electricity, 1.3 million lives could be saved each year. Compare this to global warming: The WHO estimates 141,000 people die from global warming each year – about 3% of the deaths from indoor air pollution. Even in 2050, WHO estimate 250,000 annual deaths from global warming or less than 6% of the number of people that die each and every year from indoor air pollution.

Coral reefs both act as fishery hatcheries and fishing resources while storing abundant numbers of species. At the same time, they possess an amazing beauty, which both shows up in large tourism revenues but also in most individuals saying they are willing to pay a certain amount to make sure they continue to exist for our grand children. The analyses show that reducing global coral loss by 50% may cost about $3 billion per year but the total benefits likely run to at least $72 billion, or about $24 back on every dollar invested.

Why do you think building pre-schools in Africa would be helpful?

This is not about day care but about laying the foundations for a life-long yearning for learning. Our analysis on education targets from a former World Bank economist finds that the greatest benefit can be achieved expanding pre-schooling in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons for focusing resources first on preschool and primary education include: children are highly receptive to knowledge when younger, there is generally no cultural barrier to education of girls at this stage, and young children can contribute relatively little in terms of labour. It is also cheaper to deliver early years education.  The long-term effects of funding early education are more profound and less obvious than the short-term ones. While the initial learning boost from attending preschool does not provide an advantage for long, compared to that in the primary school, it does give an unexpected payback later in life, with adults earning more. It appears that pre-schooling gives children a boost in social skills and emotional development. That is why it is likely the best education target to increase the preschool enrolment ratio in sub-Saharan Africa from the present 18 per cent to 59 per cent, creating more than $33 of benefit for every dollar invested.

Do you think “good governance” should be a SDG? Isn’t that concept too fuzzy?

Anti-corruption and governance programs sound like a good way to help countries develop, but measuring their impact on ending extreme poverty remains extremely elusive, as the experience from recent World Bank programs shows. That is why proposed targets like “Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms” sound great, but are essentially well-meaning slogans with little content. However, our study on governance found that the one governance target that is worth pursuing is providing a legal identity for all citizens, including birth registration, because it is concrete and brings a range of benefits. Such programs help build the capacity of governments to run efficient systems. Cards guarantee citizens access to public services and the right to vote, which in turn increases government accountability and reduces poverty. The benefits would at least equal the cost of every dollar invested. But we need to recognize that there are many other targets that offer a much higher return for our investment than this one, so it should not be a priority.

Bill Gates says: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than they have in any other time in history.” Do you agree?

Yes, but the extent of this much depends on a good selection of targets for the Sustainable Development Goals. That’s why we came up with the Post-2015 Consensus in the first place: if well-documented economic arguments can help just one great target replace a bad one, the impact could be enormous, redirecting tens of billions of dollars toward a goal that will bring about tens of times as much good to people’s lives for each dollar spent -- a result ultimately worth hundreds of billions of dollars. 

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