This year the US federal government will spend more than $61 billion in humanitarian aid for the rest of the world.
Philanthropists and charitable donors will contribute another $30 billion.
Combined, this amount is more than any other country and is helping to transform lives in poor countries.
But Americans – and everyone else – can do better. Not by spending more, but by spending smarter.
Today, much of spending is ultimately determined by the global list of destinations that the US and the rest of the world have to be achieved by 2030so-called Sustainable Development Goals.
The SDGs were created by the United Nations to achieve this nothing less than peace and prosperity for people and the planet.
These are noble intentions, but the effort was compromised from the start by the United Nations’ misguided attempt at radical inclusion.
Instead of identifying ten or so policies that would actually deliver success, they asked all stakeholders to submit their favorite ideas.
Inevitably, the SDGs became a sprawling agenda with 169 goals that promised everything to literally everyone: ending extreme poverty and hunger, ending the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases, addressing war, climate change, pollution, corruption and chronic diseases combat, improve education, protect biodiversity, reduce inequality and create jobs for all.
Due to the lack of prioritization, the money was only sparsely distributed across all goals. As a result, the world misses every mark.
Even United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres now admits that the goals “far from the trail.”
A recent one UN report explained some of the consequences: Under current trends, only a third of countries will meet their poverty promises by 2030, and 300 million children and young people will still leave school unable to read or write.
This year marks the midpoint between the start of the goals in 2016 and the year 2030, when they are expected to be achieved. The world is halfway through, but we’re not halfway there yet.
Starting Monday, world leaders will meet in New York to discuss how we can do better. What is needed is a strong sense of common sense and economic reality to focus the mind.
The UN wants to leave the confusing list of promises intact and demand more money from the US and other governments.
Guterres has made a bold proposal that countries at least work magic 500 billion dollars every year for the rest of the decade as a stimulus package.
Completely implausible, this would mean a tripling of global development aid – and it would still be so 20 times short the full cost of achieving all SDG promises.
It seems reasonable for taxpayers to ask why we would send more money at the behest of the very people who didn’t want to prioritize in the first place.
The Secretary-General suggests that the first three things he would spend the stimulus on are renewable energy, universal social protection and job creation.
But all three of these areas have been ranked by economists as some of the least efficient ways to help the world’s poor.
In the real world, instead of promising fantasy trillions, we should commit real billions and spend them on the most effective investments. As the world’s largest donor, the USA could play a pioneering role.
For decades, my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has worked with more than 300 of the world’s top economists and seven Nobel Prize winners to find the very best ways to do good.
As the world reaches the halfway point of its promises, we sifted through the 169 goals to determine the very best policies using a benefit-cost analysis.
The resulting peer-reviewed study identifies the 12 most efficient policies that together would deliver at least $15 in benefits for every dollar spent.
One of these critical investments is improving the quality of education. Children all over the world are now sitting in classrooms – but too many of them are not learning.
Even in low- and lower-middle-income countries, which make up about half of the world’s population, almost every child starts at least primary school.
Yet a staggering 80% – a third of a billion children – I can’t even pass basic math and comprehension skills Testing.
At the current rate of improvement, it will take 159 years for primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa to reach North America’s 2015 levels.
Putting more money into existing education systems usually doesn’t work.
Although governments in low- and lower-middle-income countries almost doubled spending per primary school student between 1990 and 2015, there was little improvement in learning outcomes.
Economists agree that the best educational value for money is found in elementary school, where the greatest impact can be achieved at the lowest cost.
Almost everywhere, schools put all 9-year-olds in one class, 10-year-olds in another, and so on. At every level, some children struggle and want to give up, while others are far ahead and bored.
But technology can help. Sit each student in front of a tablet with customized learning software for an hour a day, and the software will quickly identify the right level and teach from there.
For each student, the cost of tablets and infrastructure – even accounting for incompetence, corruption and theft – is just $31 per year.
Many large-scale studies have shown that even when the rest of the school day is spent in traditional classrooms with minimal learning, an hour a day results in remarkable overall learning: over a year, the student learns what would normally take three school years.
Better-educated students become more productive adults, which means entire societies do much better in the long run. Each student’s future income increase today will be nearly $2,000. At $31, that’s a remarkable return of $65 for every dollar invested.
Such analysis helped Convince Malawione of the poorest countries in the world, is starting to provide tablets and learning software to every primary school.
If we are serious about boosting education in the poorer half of the world, we must make these and similar smart education solutions available to all students.
The realistic total annual cost would be almost $10 billion, but it would make the world’s poorest people more than $600 billion better off each year.
That makes it one of the world’s 12 best investments and a policy the U.S. should champion next week to kick 2030 promises into high gear and make development spending more effective.
Investing in maternal and newborn health is another incredible investment.
Each year, nearly 300,000 mothers die from pregnancy-related complications, and 2.3 million newborns die within the first month of life. With cheap, simple and proven approaches, more than half of these deaths can be prevented.
We can encourage more women to give birth in health facilities and ensure they have essential staff, training and resources to address the most common complications surrounding childbirth.
More than 700,000 newborns die every year from suffocation because they no longer breathe or are unable to breathe.
The surprisingly simple solution is a ventilator – a simple mask with a hand pump that can pump air into the infant’s lungs.
It costs just $75 and can typically save up to 25 children over its three-year lifespan. This year, more than 3.5 million children will require resuscitation care, but only a third will be in a facility with access to ventilators.
Taking real-world failures and corruption into account, the total financial cost is just $2.8 billion per year.
This spending could save 166,000 mothers and 1.2 million newborns each year. Every dollar spent delivers a staggering $87 in social impact.
Solutions in education and maternal health are just two of the twelve policy areas where our research identifies incredibly impactful investments.
We can also almost completely end tuberculosis, which still needlessly kills more than a million people each year.
And we can reduce the death toll of chronic diseases very cost-effectively by reducing cardiovascular disease with pills to reduce high blood pressure and through alcohol regulations and tobacco taxes.
Overall, with 12 smart policies, we could achieve a lot while spending relatively little.
At a total cost of about $35 billion per year – just over half of what the US alone spends on humanitarian aid – the world could see returns worth 52 times the investment.
These actions can save 4.2 million lives each year and generate $1.1 trillion in economic benefits for low- and lower-middle-income countries each year.
These phenomenal opportunities should be the first things we focus on for the rest of this decade. As the U.N. discusses failing 2030 promises, the U.S. should focus on what works.
The United States can expand its leadership not by supporting a doomed attempt to conjure up trillions of dollars for an ill-conceived list of development promises, but by showing how to achieve the very best for the world.
All research results are available at copenhagenconsensus.com/halftimealso published by Cambridge University Press’ Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis. The whole story can be found in Björn Lomborg’s book The best first.