Fewer, effective development goals will help India much more

  • Hindustan Times, Bjorn Lomborg
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:26 IST
Research shows that spending an extra Rs 5.5 trillion on agrarian research over the next 15 years will boost yield by an additional 0.4 percentage points each year. (Reuters)

Over the last 15 years, India has experienced large strides in its development, not the least urged by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015. Impressively, India has reached the target of halving the proportion of people in poverty in 2011-12, well ahead of this year’s deadline. From almost half of all Indians below $1.25 per day in 1994, more than three in four are now above the poverty line.

India has also achieved near-complete primary education, up from about 70% in 1999. In 1990, 3.3 million Indian children died each year before their fifth birthday. This year, it is likely that less than 1.3 million children will die. With the MDGs, India had promised to cut child mortality rates by two-thirds or down to 1 million child deaths, so it will fail this promise. But it is important to keep a perspective: With a strong political effort along with better technology and nutrition over the past 25 years, India now saves two million children from dying each year.

Later this year, global leaders are replacing the MDGs with the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) until 2030. This is India’s chance to demand the most effective targets that will help accelerate recent progress. However, after years of entangled negotiations and horse-trading, the UN’s process has created an unmanageably long list of 169 global development targets.

All 169 targets are well-intentioned, but range from grandiose (‘eradicate extreme poverty’ and ‘end hunger’) to peripheral (‘promote sustainable tourism’) to flat-out impossible (‘full and productive employment and decent work for all’).

Having 169 competing objectives is like having no priorities. Doing everything at once means doing very little at all. India can do much better. More than 80 economists at the Copenhagen Consensus Center analysed the UN’s plans and identified the targets’ costs and benefits to society. They used cost-benefit analysis, which allows us to identify all of the social, environmental and economic results of making an investment, and express these in a monetary figure. This means we can compare competing priorities and see where we would achieve most. Spreading money across all 169 targets would result, when put into a monetary figure, in `7 worth of social good for every rupee spent.

This is a respectable ‘return on investment’ — but it is the result of averaging out some exceptionally good spending and much more mediocre spending. We would apportion a large amount on targets that achieve relatively little, and a small fraction on a few phenomenally powerful targets.

Picking just a few, exceptionally effective targets would help the world much more. For the Copenhagen Consensus, a panel of top economists, including several Nobel Laureates, found that 19 smart targets could achieve Rs 32 of social good for every rupee spent. This is the equivalent of more than quadrupling India’s spending.

An example of a phenomenal investment is agricultural research and development. Food security is an area where India has struggled to live up to the MDGs’ expectations. In the late 1960s, the Green Revolution transformed India and saved hundreds of millions of lives, with higher-yielding crop varieties, pesticides and fertiliser. But globally, progress has not kept up. Yield improvements have slowed, food is burned for fuel, and just Rs 317 billion ($5 billion) is spent annually, globally, on research to improve global food crops.

Research for the Copenhagen Consensus shows that spending an extra Rs 5.5 trillion ($88 billion) on agricultural research and development over the next 15 years will boost yield increases by an additional 0.4 percentage points each year. Although this doesn’t sound like much it will generate about Rs 190 trillion ($3tn) in benefits and prevent starvation for an extra 75 million people.

Research could create varieties that are more resistant to weather changes caused by climate change, reducing risks of harvest failure. And agricultural R&D also helps biodiversity, as higher yields mean we need to cut down fewer forests, leaving more space for the planet’s species, and more CO2 stored, making a difference to climate change.

In total, by sparking a new Green Revolution, we could feed people, save lives, improve biodiversity, and address global warming. For every rupee spent, we could achieve $34 worth of good.


When it comes to health, the eradication of tuberculosis should be prioritised. In India, over 2 million develop TB every year, with more than a quarter million dying. Each hour, around 30 Indians die of TB, despite effective treatment being available.

There has been remarkable progress both in India and globally — but it has been hampered by weak health systems, poverty and multi-resistant strains of TB. Despite the toll it takes, TB treatment receives just 4% of total development assistance spent on health, compared with 25% for HIV.

Treatment is inexpensive and effective. From 1997 to 2006 increased Indian TB control has prevented 1.3 million deaths, generating Rs 115 of social good per rupee spent. With a future price tag of Rs 13,500 to treat every TB case, the annual cost to reduce TB deaths by 70% is Rs 11.4 billion, but the benefits will be 37 times higher.

There are phenomenal development investments — and then there are those that would achieve a lot less good. NGOs, politicians and bureaucrats have stuffed the 169 targets with everyone’s favourite issues. But some targets are just much more effective.

Given its experience with the MDGs, India is in a powerful position to step up and argue that rather than trying to please everyone, we need fewer, much more effective targets. Instead of 169 unmanageable targets, India should consider committing itself to a much smaller list along the 19 targets that would help the world the most.

In doing so, India could set the course for global development, helping four times as much with the same budget.

(Bjorn Lomborg is director, Copenhagen Consensus Center. The views expressed are personal.)

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