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It is traditional during the end-of-year holidays to reflect on the consequences of our past behaviour and to contemplate on the good we might want to achieve in the 12 months ahead. When we set resolutions, for example, we are striving to determine how we can do better in our lives. Perhaps we could also use the occasion to consider how we might achieve such improvement on a larger scale.  

In 2015 the world’s leaders attempted to address the pressing issues facing humankind by establishing the Sustainable Development Goals — a compilation of 169 targets to be reached by 2030. Every admirable pursuit imaginable made the list: eradicating poverty and disease; stopping war, protecting biodiversity; improving education — and, of course, ameliorating climate change.

In 2023 we’ll be at the halfway point of the 2016-2030 time horizon — but still far from halfway towards hitting our putative targets. Given current trends we will achieve them half a century late. What is the primary cause of our failure? Our inability to prioritise. There is little difference between having 169 unrealised goals and having no goals at all.

We have placed core targets such as the eradication of infant mortality and the provision of basic education on the same footing as well-intentioned but peripheral targets, such as boosting recycling and promoting lifestyles in harmony with nature. By attempting to do everything at once we risk doing very little at all, as we have for the past seven years.

It is therefore long past time to identify and prioritise our most crucial goals. The Copenhagen Consensus think-tank, together with several Nobel laureates and more than 100 leading economists, has done just that, identifying where our dollars, rupees and rands might be devoted, to do the most good.

End hunger

This painstaking exercise is already delivering some compelling results. We could, for example, truly hasten an end to hunger. And we need to. Despite great progress over the past decades, more than 800-million people still go without sufficient food. Careful economic research helps identify ingenious and effective solutions.

Hunger hits hardest in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, beginning with conception and proceeding over the next two years. Boys and girls who face a shortage of essential nutrients and vitamins grow more slowly. That compromises them physically as well as intellectually. The IQ of insufficiently fed children is, for example, reduced significantly — by five points on average. Those children attend school less often (and learn less effectively when they do attend), achieve lower grades, and are poorer and less productive as adults.

Picture: 123RF/GAJUS
Picture: 123RF/GAJUS

We can deliver essential nutrients to pregnant mothers effectively. The provision of a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement costs a bit over $2 per pregnancy. When babies so provisioned are born, their brains have developed more optimally — and that puts them on a course of life that is more productive, personally and socially. Each dollar spent would deliver an astounding $38 of social benefit.

Why would we not first take this path? Because in trying to please everyone, and in failing to think carefully and clearly while doing so, we spend a little on everything, essentially ignoring the most effective solutions. The result, unfortunately, deprives everyone of the intelligence and productivity that would otherwise be available to all.

Adaptive education

Consider, as well, what we could accomplish on the education front. The world has finally managed to get almost all children in school. Too often, unfortunately, the schools are of low quality, and many students still learn almost nothing. More than half the children in poor countries cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10.

Schools typically group children by age. This is a significant problem, because age and ability are not the same thing. Any random group of 20 or 60 children of the same age will be very diverse in their domain of knowledge. This means the struggling children will be lost and the competent children bored, no matter what level their instructors teach. The solution, research-tested around the world? Let each child spend one hour a day with a tablet that adapts teaching exactly to the level of that child. Even as the rest of the school day is unchanged, over the course of a year that will produce learning equivalent to three years of typical education.

What would this cost? The shared tablet, charging costs (often via solar panels) and extra teacher instruction cost about $26 per student, per year. But tripling the rate of learning for just one year makes each student more productive in adulthood, enabling them to generate an additional $1,700 in today’s money. This straightforward and practically implementable policy means each dollar so invested would deliver $65 in long-term benefits.

When we fragment our attention, attending to far too many goals, we end up implementing superficially attractive but terribly inefficient policies. Trying to please everyone, we fail to achieve those very valuable goals we can in fact achieve. Along with hunger and education, there are about a dozen other, incredibly effective policies such as drastically reducing tuberculosis and corruption. Those are targets we could and should hit. The moral imperative is clear: we must do the best things first.

There’s a resolution, both personal and social. That’s the pathway to a better future. Let’s resolve to walk down that road as we consider the dawning of the new year.

• Dr Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm”. Dr Peterson is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of “Maps of Meaning”, “12 Rules for Life” and “Beyond Order”.

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