Let’s rescue the SDG agenda

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

This year is 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 have promised to end hunger, poverty and disease, 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 all. Not surprisingly, the world is failing on almost every promise. We are nowhere near halfway. 

First, we need a better conversation on priorities. My think tank is working with governments across the world to help national spending decisions by researching which policies deliver the biggest benefits for every shilling spent. Secondly, we need to rescue global goals and end the global dithering. With resources scarce, we need to prioritise. 

Unfortunately, many world leaders still believe the way forward is to go to the UN later this year and make lofty speeches about how important it is to achieve all the 169 promises and then suggest that only by aiming for the stars shall we get anywhere. 

But there is no way we will deliver on all of them on time. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is now implausibly calling for a $500 billion annual SDG stimulus package—several times what rich countries spend on foreign aid. It just won’t happen.

Even if taxpayers globally paid the requested $500 billion, it would still be 20 times too little. Achieving all the promises would cost $15-20 trillion a year. But less than a quarter is funded, mostly in rich countries. That’s an annual shortfall of $10-15 trillion, or the entire tax intake of $13 trillion from every government, a fiscal gap that simply can’t be closed.

Across the SDGs, some promises don’t have cost-effective, powerful solutions. Others 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. Semi-structured teaching plans. 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. 

Green Revolution

On 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. Agricultural R&D would cut malnutrition, make farmers more productive and drive down food costs. $5.5 billion yearly could deliver a $184 billion return of long-term benefits.

Simple measures to improve 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 $35 billion annually, we could do everything listed above and avoid a million deaths from tuberculosis every 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.

These policies can save 4.2 million lives yearly and make the poorer world $1.1 trillion more prosperous every year. Every dollar spent will deliver $52 of social benefits.

Pursuing these 12 phenomenal investments is likely the best thing the world can do this decade. 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 all. 

Dr Lomborg, president of Copenhagen Consensus, is visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of the new book ‘Best Things First’. [email protected]. @BjornLomborg www.lomborg.com.