The world faces many challenges, between the impacts of inflation and high interest rates, the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, or geopolitical conflicts such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Amid all this, 2023 marks the halftime point for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the sprawling list of 169 ambitions in which all global leaders have promised everything to everyone.
Governments worldwide have promised to end hunger, poverty, and disease, and stop climate change, corruption and war, while ensuring quality education and every other good thing you could imagine, including organic apples and community gardens for everyone.
Not surprisingly, the world is failing on almost every single promise. We’re at halftime, but nowhere near halfway. We need to do better.
First, we need a better conversation on priorities. My think tank is working with governments across the world, from Uganda to Tonga and Uzbekistan, to help national spending decisions by researching which policies deliver the biggest benefits for each pound spent. If there is political interest, we have the resources to do this for Egypt, too. The starting point is a national conversation on top priorities.
Second, we need to rescue the global goals and end the global dithering. As resources are scarce everywhere, we need to prioritise the best things first.
Unfortunately, many world leaders still believe the way forward is to come to the UN later this year and make lofty speeches about how important it is to achieve every one of the 169 promises and then to suggest that only by aiming for the stars will we get anywhere.
But wishful thinking will not change the fact that there is no way we will deliver on all these promises in time. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is now implausibly calling for a $500 billion annual SDG stimulus package. That’s several times what the world’s rich countries are already spending on foreign aid. It’s just not going to happen.
Even if taxpayers globally could be convinced to pay the requested half a trillion dollars, this would still be 20 times too little. Achieving all the global promises is estimated to cost around $15 to $20 trillion a year. Currently, less than a quarter of that is funded, and most of the spending is in rich countries, not the poor countries where development is needed the most.
This leaves an annual shortfall of $10 to $15 trillion, which is equivalent to the entire tax intake of $13 trillion from every government in the world. That’s a fiscal gap that simply cannot be closed. We need a shift from empty rhetoric and trillion-dollar promises to real and efficient billion-dollar action. It is time to focus our attention where it matters most.
The truth is that across the SDGs, some promises do not have cost-effective, powerful solutions. Other promises have investments that are incredibly effective and can deliver amazing progress for a few billion dollars a year.
Take the crucial SDG promise of improving education. Research has consistently shown cheap and efficient ways to increase learning. Tablets with educational software used just one hour a day over a year cost only $20 per student and result in learning that normally would take three years. Semi-structured teaching plans can make teachers teach more efficiently, doubling learning outcomes each year for just $10 per student.
We could dramatically improve education for almost half a billion primary school students in the world’s poorer half for less than $10 billion annually. This investment would generate long-term productivity increases worth $65 for each dollar spent.
Or consider the SDG promise of reducing hunger. We need a second Green Revolution. In the 1960s, breakthroughs created more efficient seeds that allowed farmers to produce more food at lower cost. Now, agricultural R&D is needed desperately for the world’s poorer half. This spending would cut malnutrition, help farmers become more productive, and drive down food costs. Spending $5.5 billion annually could deliver an incredible return of long-term benefits worth $184 billion.
Simple measures to improve conditions around childbirth could save the lives of 166,000 mothers and 1.2 million newborns each year for less than $5 billion annually.
Economists working with the Copenhagen Consensus think tank have identified 12 powerful policies that would deliver enormous benefits across the SDGs at relatively low costs. You can read more about these in my new book Best Things First. For a total of $35 billion annually, we could do everything listed above, plus we could avoid a million deaths from tuberculosis each year by 2030, improve land-ownership records, boost trade, reduce malaria, enable more movement of skilled workers to reduce inequality, improve immunisation levels, make major inroads into child nutrition, and save 1.5 million lives from chronic diseases like hypertension.
In total, these policies can save 4.2 million lives each year and make the poorer world $1.1 trillion more prosperous every year. Put in economic terms, every dollar spent will deliver an amazing $52 of social benefits. Pursuing these 12 phenomenal investments is likely the best thing the world can do this decade.
We should begin a national conversation on priorities in Egypt. And we should ensure the world has a similar conversation on its many promises. Let’s rescue the SDG agenda and make the most of the remaining seven years. Let’s prioritise what would deliver the most incredible benefits for the world.
* Click here to read the story in arabic.
The writer is president of Copenhagen Consensus, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and author of Best Things First.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.