Target to end poverty by 2030 is over-ambitious: Bjorn Lomborg | opinion | Hindustan Times
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Target to end poverty by 2030 is over-ambitious: Bjorn Lomborg

opinion Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:25 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
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In September, world leaders are expected to sign the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas over the next 15 years.

The SDGs follow, and expand on, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are due to expire this year. The SDGs have 17 proposed goals and 169 targets, whereas the MDGs had eight goals and 18 targets. Many economists believe that having so many targets is like having no objectives at all.

For the Copenhagen Consensus, a think-tank, a panel of top economists, including several Nobel laureates, have analysed the targets and zeroed in on what could be the best ones. The last round of negotiations on the final document of the post-2015 development agenda begins on Monday. Bjorn Lomborg, the Center's director and one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, spoke to KumKum Dasgupta on the Centre's analysis of the development goals:

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the 'success rate' of the MDGs? What have been its shortcomings and what could have been done better to overcome them?

Overall, the MDGs have been a great success. 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 a quarter of those living in the developing world were starving. By 2012, that figure has fallen to roughly 15%; If current trends hold, it will reach 12.2% by the end of 2015, just shy of the goal. We need to maintain and build on this progress.

How are SDGs different from MDGs?

The MDGs worked because they were few in number and sharp in focus - just 18 targets and 374 words that changed the world. This time, the United Nations has sought to make the process very inclusive, asking for input from stakeholders around the world. There has been a lot of horse-trading and haggling over the outcome, and an attempt to please everyone. Given these goals will influence how trillions of dollars in development aid and national budgets are spent, every interest group hopes to get its target included in the final document. As a result, in the latest iteration the United Nations has proposed 169 targets, running to 4,369 words. The proposed targets range from the 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"). As the Copenhagen Consensus research has shown, it's just a reality that promising everything to everyone gives us no direction. Having 169 priorities is like having none at all.

In an interview to Financial Times you said that the first goal (end poverty) is "unrealistically ambitious". Is it then just a 'feel-good' target?

No, it's not a feel-good target, but the aspiration to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 is certainly over-ambitious. The promise of the MDGs to halve the proportion of people living in poverty by the end of 2015 was much more realistic. Around 43% of people in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 per day in 1990. By 2010, five years ahead of schedule, the world had met its goal of reducing that share by half. Today, the poverty rate is on track to reach 15% by the end of 2015.

But finishing the job is not so straightforward. As we get closer to zero, diminishing returns will kick in. Furthermore, we'll have to alleviate poverty in regions affected by conflict and poor governance. Reports by the Brookings Institution, the Center for Global Development, and the World reducing extreme poverty to zero by 2030 is unlikely. Unfortunately, a more reasonable estimate of extreme poor in 2030 is 4-8%. That would still be an amazing outcome compared to 1950, when more than half the world was poor.

Also, remember that promising impossible targets sets us up for failure later. For instance, with the MDGs we promised to cut child death by 2/3rds. In reality we "only" reduced by 50%. So, most people have heard that we 'failed' on child mortality, although the reality is that we have gone from 12 million child deaths per year in 1990 to about 6 million today. By any standards, this is an amazing achievement - each year 6 million kids survive because of interventions like better immunization, health care, and nutrition. - and yet, because we overpromised, it is seen as a failure.

Promising zero poverty in 2030 will likewise see even an amazing reduction in poverty set up for failure.

The money needed for reaching the SDG goals would be huge. At a time when the world is facing financial crunch, do you think the developed world will be ready to spend so much? Or will the thrust be more on self financing by countries?

We expect the developed world to spend $2.5 trillion in official development assistance until 2030, and the goals will also influence the spending of trillions of dollars from national budgets from India and other countries. This is a lot of money, but the crucial point is to realize that our resources are still limited and won't allow us to solve all of the world's problems in the next 15 years, which is essentially what the UN dreams about with its 169 targets. Policymakers and international organisations must ask themselves: Where can we do the most good? To assist this prioritization, the Copenhagen Consensus has published 100+ peer-reviewed analyses from 82 of the world's top economists over the past 18 months on how effective more than 100 of the proposed SDGs would be. An Expert Panel including several Nobel Laureates has reviewed this research and identified 19 targets (see box) that represent the best value-for-money in development over the period 2016 to 2030 [see on the right]. The expert analyses suggest that if the UN concentrates on 19 top targets, it could be as good as quadrupling the aid budget. For more:

There are some suggestions in the social, economic and environmental benefit per $ spent chart in your book ---- The Nobel Laureates Guide to The Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030 --- that are surprising to many in India. For example, the benefit from child marriages is likely to be low; increase in protected areas is not a great idea; doubling renewable energy target; the ones under the poverty target. In a way, these conclusions almost turn upside down the policy roadmap India is following…

Not all of our findings are obvious. For instance, the point on child marriage is not that it is not a problem. Rather, trying to tackle it with information campaigns designed to change underlying social norms will often have little or no effect. Instead, what our experts point out is that we need to focus on other drivers, like better education for women, more economic and political opportunities for women, more women's rights for inheritance and starting businesses, better nutrition for girls, etc. All of these efforts have many other benefits, but they will also make it more likely that girls will continue in school and engage more in productive jobs, and hence reduce child marriage.

Similarly with renewables: the point is not that global warming is not real - it is. The point is rather that doubling renewables is an expensive way to try to respond. We estimate that a global doubling will do a lot of good - it will make more energy available, and it will also reduce CO? emissions. In total, the benefits will amount to more than $400 billion annually. The problem is that the cost is likely to be more than $500 billion annually. Paying $500 billion for $400 billion of benefits is a poor investment. Instead, to tackle global warming we should phase out fossil fuel subsidies and increase investment in green R&D to make sure that in the coming decades the world will have green technologies so cheap that they will outcompete fossil fuels.

Remember, though, that our analysis is global - these estimates of benefits and costs are true globally, but they may very well be different for India. That is why we're very excited about possibly taking this prioritisation to India - where we would look specifically at the cost and benefits for India, helping to find the best investments for this country.

The GOI is starting the refurbished Skill Development Mission. The book, however, shows that there is not much point investing in vocational training. Why do you say so?

This is again a matter of prioritisation. We're not saying that investing in vocational training is a bad idea, but at a global level, there are more cost-effective education targets the world should focus on. Vocational training has been identified as less profitable than general secondary education, making it an inferior investment option. And that is still not the best education target. Copenhagen Consensus analysis 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 labor. 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% to 59%, creating more than $33 of benefit for every dollar invested.

(The writer tweets as @kumkumdasgupta)