'We should save ten people before we save one person' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 07, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:37 AM, October 09, 2016

'We should save ten people before we save one person'

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg is the President of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a top ranked think tank, and one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people. In an exclusive interview with Amitava Kar of The Daily Star, Dr. Lomborg talks about some development ideas for the world and Bangladesh.

The Daily Star (TDS): How did you come up with the ideas and what was the background?

Bjorn Lomberg (BL): The UN, with its 2015-2030 process, is going to set the global goals for the next 15 years in September, following the success of the Millennium Development Goals. Since these could end up determining a large part of the period's $2.5 trillion development aid, it is important we pick targets more effectively. The Copenhagen Consensus has engaged in a project to determine which targets will deliver the most good per dollar spent. We have commissioned in-depth research and cost-benefit analyses on 22 diverse topics of development, ranging from education to gender and energy. Sixty teams of internationally renowned economists, including several Nobel Laureates, are taking into account not just the economic, but also health, social and environmental benefits to the world.

TDS: What are the recommendations?

BL: The Millenium Development Goals of the UN that lasted from 2000-2015 were very successful but short. This time they asked everyone and got about 1,400 proposals. They have now whittled them down to 169 targets. Still the list is too long and it has some really good targets, a lot of  mediocre ones and a few really poor ones. That's a  bad way to help the world. We are reducing them to a couple of dozen by the end of this month.

TDS: Please give us examples of a few poor targets.

BL: Some of them have no substance -- they are well-wishing all the way through. I have pointed them out in my book  The Nobel Laureates' Guide to The Smartest Targets for The World :2016-2030. For instance, promising work for everyone sounds nice. But we don't know how to do that; if we knew we would probably be doing that already. Instead, we have to make sure that people will get good education, good nutrition and good health care so that we create opportunities that will lead to good employment. Don't fix problems you don't know how to fix unless you know how to fix them well. We are trying to find what works well instead of what sounds good.

TDS: How to fix education?

BL: One  good solution is pre-school. Focus on young children because it's easier, cheaper and  it gives them a life-long longing to learn.  It also opens up the opportunity for women to enter the job market. The point is you want to do it at the lowest level where you have the highest impact for the longest amount of time at the lowest cost. Studies show that if you provide children with better nutrition, they become better educated, have more successful lives. So when you focus on nutrition you are also focusing on education.

The UN wants free university education for all. Our economists say that's silly. It's basically a subsidy to the rich people's kids. Everyone does not go to a university.  If you want more people in universities, giving them scholarship is perhaps a more effective way.

TDS: How hard is it to solve the problems that matter to all of us? What's missing? Is it the will?

BL: The obstacle is some things cost more than others. Let me give you a  simple example although it  may not be relevant for Bangladesh. It costs about one tenth to save a person's life from malaria as it does to save a person's life from HIV. Since we are not being able to save everyone, I think we should save ten people before we save one person. But a lot of people are  uncomfortable with that. They argue that we have to save everyone. Of course in a perfect world we should do that. But we are not in that world and we don't.

TDS:Please tell us about the Bangladesh Consensus Project.

BL: I am meeting up with lots of people here in Bangladesh and we are hearing a lot of different solutions. There are some issues that everyone agrees on -- education, nutrition and so on. We want to engage the smartest economists in Bangladesh, in the region and the world and come up with solid research that will tell us what the best solutions for development in Bangladesh are. We would also love to hear from the readers of The Daily Star.

Bangladesh has a budget of about $29 billion. I would expect  this project to come out and tell us how they can spend that money more efficiently on smarter targets. The development community is spending about $3 billion each year in Bangladesh. We would like to talk to them and say you can undertake projects  that can do better. And of course, we would like the public conversation to be about the fact that we want  politicians, businesses and everyone else more committed on these things.

TDS: How important is free trade?

BL: Free trade can dramatically improve  opportunities. If we have a successful Doha round, we would on an average make every person in the developing world $1,000 richer per year. There are, however, some real costs. You have to pay off mostly western farmers for accepting not to be protected anymore. We estimate that cost at the order of $300 billion. But the world would be $11,000 billion richer per year by 2030. So it's a phenomenally good target. There are legitimate concerns but we have to remember that overall, this is the kind of stuff dreams are made of. If you look at China, they opened up to the world and  lifted 680 million people out of poverty in 30 years.

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