[lit-ideas] World problems??

  • From: "Steven G. Cameron" <stevecam@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 05 May 2004 12:34:14 -0400

Thoughtful perspective...


/Steve Cameron, NJ

WSJ, 5 Apr 2004

Problems, Problems

Spend half an hour shopping, and you quickly realize that all of us make 
priorities -- every day. Few of us are lucky enough to be able to afford 
everything, so we must weigh choices: new shoes, or a night out? A 
holiday, or tires for the car? On a larger scale, politicians make 
public policy priorities. Is raising literacy rates the highest 
priority, or should fixing the health system be paramount? No dollar can 
be spent twice.

Strangely, this basic concept has been almost absent in debate about one 
of the most important choices the world makes: how we spend money 
designed to improve living standards around the globe. This money is 
most obvious in overseas development and aid spending, but is also 
achieved through trade policies, the funding of research into diseases, 
investment in environmental protection, peacekeeping missions and 
maintaining the U.N. apparatus.

The cash has often tended to follow the public's attention from disaster 
to catastrophe -- indeed, the "cause of the hour" changes as fast as the 
media can set up cameras in another hotspot. Today's fears about climate 
change are yesterday's concerns about overpopulation, and tomorrow's 
outcry for a response to famine.

Climate Change
Communicable Diseases
Financial Instability
Malnutrition and Hunger
Governance and Corruption
Population: Migration
Sanitation and Water
Subsidies and Trade Barriers

Source: www.copenhagenconsensus.com

The U.N. has adopted Millennium Development Goals -- a collection of 
worthy initiatives. But unfortunately, they are unprioritized. Of 
course, we'd like to do all of them; it is vital to eliminate gender 
disparity in primary and secondary education, and we know we must reduce 
child mortality and improve maternal health. But if you or I were the 
elected leader of a small nation with just $5 million to spare for such 
projects, where should we spend our money first? Should we spread it 
around all of the goals, or would we achieve more if we spent most of it 
on just one initiative? Even if the world had much more than that to 
spend -- say, $50 billion -- how do we know where to direct the bulk of it?

Some say it is impossible to prioritize such worthy endeavors -- that 
every dollar used to "do some good" is a dollar well spent. But how wise 
is it to take this laissez-faire approach when we don't have money for 
everything? Consider cash-strapped shoppers at the grocery store. They 
scour the aisles, comparing different items. If they could get four 
family meals out of a single product, why would they spend the same 
money on an item that will only feed the family once?

Opponents believe that it is distasteful to prioritize this major 
spending, and that the result of any effort would be that some areas 
miss out entirely. Roger Riddell of Christian Aid has pointed out that 
there is little chance of effective use of money in southern Sudan, for 
example. Yet, he argues, help to Sudan "should not be abandoned." I 
don't know whether his pessimistic view of southern Sudan is justified 
-- and I certainly don't argue that relief efforts there should be 
abandoned. But on the broader point, we must ask ourselves: If there are 
some places where we can do relatively little, should we not consider 
achieving more elsewhere?

In an ideal world, we would have the money and the political capital to 
do everything. We would be able to end malnutrition, illiteracy and 
refugee problems, halt climate change, stop global conflicts, and wipe 
out corruption. But we live in the real world, where we must focus our 
efforts to achieve even some of these things. We have a stark choice. We 
can continue to prioritize without acknowledging that we are doing it. 
Or, we can work out a rational framework for our spending that makes 
some more sense.

This is exactly the aim of Copenhagen Consensus, a project that will 
bring nine of the world's top economists to Denmark later this month. 
The expert panel -- including four Nobel Laureates -- will create a 
prioritized list of opportunities to solve the 10 greatest challenges 
facing humanity, as we see them. The economists will examine the costs 
and benefits of solutions to each challenge. An example of a solution 
(to the challenge of communicable diseases) could be to provide free 
mosquito nets to areas affected by malaria. The result will be perhaps 
the grandest "To Do" list the world has seen, showing us how to spend 
our money the most efficiently. The list will be concrete, outlining 
tangible opportunities that can be done today.

The Copenhagen Consensus may not make every decision-maker snap to 
attention and change spending habits immediately. But it will give us 
the information we need to make our choices more rationally. Most 
importantly, it will place debate over the prioritization of our 
resources firmly on the agenda, making it possible not just to do some 
good in the world, but to do the best that we possibly can.

Mr. Lomborg, director of the Environmental Assessment Institute (which 
has organized the Copenhagen Consensus), is the author of "The Skeptical 
Environmentalist" (Cambridge, 2001).

Every week The Economist publishes two articles, each dealing with one 
of the 10 challenges. Read the articles at 

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