The world faces many challenges — inflation and high interest rates, the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic, or geopolitical conflicts such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Amid all this, 2023 marks the halftime point for the 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, including organic apples and community gardens for everyone.
Not surprisingly, the world is failing on almost every 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, the Copenhagen Consensus, is working with governments worldwide — from Uganda to Tonga and Uzbekistan — to help the national spending decisions by researching which policies deliver the most significant benefits for each dollar spent. If there is political interest, we could also do this for the United States. The starting point is a national conversation on priorities.
Second, we need to rescue global goals and end global dithering. As resources are scarce everywhere, we must prioritize the best things first.
Unfortunately, many world leaders still believe the way forward is to come to the United Nations and make lofty speeches about how important it is to achieve every one of the 169 promises and then suggest that only by aiming for the stars will we get anywhere.
But wishful thinking won’t change the fact that there is no way we will deliver on all these promises in time. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is now implausibly calling for a $500 billion annual SDG stimulus package. That’s several times what rich countries are already spending on foreign aid. It’s just not going to happen.
Even if taxpayers globally could be persuaded to pay the requested half a trillion dollars, this would still be 20 times too little. Achieving all the promises is estimated to cost $15 trillion to $20 trillion annually. Currently, less than a quarter is funded, and most of that spending is in rich countries, not the poor countries where development is needed the most.
This leaves an annual shortfall of $10 trillion to $15 trillion, equivalent to the entire tax intake of $13 trillion from every government in the world. That’s a fiscal gap that 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 some promises do not have cost-effective, powerful solutions across the SDGs. 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 usually 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 costs. Now, agricultural R&D is needed desperately for the world’s poorer half. This spending would cut malnutrition, help farmers become more productive, and reduce food costs. Spending $5.5 billion annually could deliver an incredible return of long-term benefits worth $184 billion.
Improving childbirth conditions 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 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 book “Best Things First.” For $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 immunization levels, make significant inroads into child nutrition, and save 1.5 million lives from chronic diseases like hypertension.
These policies can save 4.2 million lives yearly and make the poorer world $1.1 trillion more prosperous every year. Put in economic terms, every dollar spent will deliver an amazing $52 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 the United States. And we should ensure the world has a similar conversation on its many promises. Let’s rescue the SDG agenda and maximize the remaining seven years. Let’s prioritize what would deliver the most incredible benefits for the world.