Economics of optimism

Or how the UN, government bureaucracy and the wicked word ‘sustainability’, along with no less than 1,000 NGOs, can undermine good work and waste money

Bjorn Lomborg, working with his Post-2015 Copenhagen Consensus group, is refining his daring idea of working out what projects gives the world the best bang for each dollar spent on global development for the poor. An article republished on his own website from the Economist quotes Belland Melinda Gates on just how much progress is being made in a world of seeming total pessimism.

“THE lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.” So predict Bill and Melinda Gates in their annual letter, published on January 22nd. The wealthy philanthropists expect the rate of infant mortality to halve by 2030, from one child in 20 dying before turning five to one in 40. They also forecast the eradication of polio and perhaps three other deadly diseases. Improvements in agriculture will mean that Africa will be able to feed itself. Financial security will improve as the 2 billion people who do not have a bank account start storing money and making payments using mobile phones. And affordable online courses will open up huge educational opportunities for poor people, especially girls.

That’s the good news. However, the United Nations is introducing what it calls “Sustainable Development Goals”. The dreaded S word in the title with its massive baggage of ideology, guarantees billions of wasted money, myriad targets and no accountability.

On January 17th action/2015, a coalition of over 1,000 NGOs and celebrities, began a campaign for SDGs that are inspiring, properly financed and monitored with good data—sound principles, but ones that will not help much in winnowing down the number of goals and targets.

However, the one change that would improve poverty reduction by a factor of up to one hundred for each dollar spent over other targeted spending, is simply free trade.

As for the UN push for data development — think bureaucrats — there is increasing scepticism. Lomborg points out:

gathering data is hugely expensive, at around $1.5 billion per SDG target; measuring all 169 proposed targets would eat up 12.5% of total international development aid.

Naturally, Lomborg and his team question money for climate change as being virtually useless in the context of development targets, but the idea of 169 targets “is like having no targets at all”.

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