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How would you spend $50billion?

Bjørn Lomborg Bjørn Lomborg is the organizer of Copenhagen Consensus, adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, and editor of the new book How to spend $50 billion to make the world a better place.

by Bjørn Lomborg

The list of urgent challenges facing humanity is depressingly long. AIDS, hunger, armed conflict, and global warming compete for attention alongside government failure, malaria, and the latest natural disaster. While our compassion is great, our resources are limited. So who should be helped first?

To some, making such priorities seems obscene. But the United Nations and national governments spend billions of dollars each year trying to help those in need without explicitly considering whether they are achieving the most that they can.

The western media focuses on a tsunami in Asia; donations flow freely. An earthquake that devastates Pakistan garners fewer headlines, so the developed world gives a lot less.

There is a better way. We could prioritize our spending to achieve the greatest benefit for our money.

This month, I will ask UN ambassadors how they would spend $50 billion to reduce suffering. They will repeat the same exercise that some of the world’s best economists tackled in a 2004 project called the “Copenhagen Consensus”: weighing up solutions to the great challenges facing the world, and deciding what should be done first.

But the question shouldn’t be left to politicians or Nobel laureates alone. We must all engage in the debate. One hopes that this task has been made slightly simpler by the publication of a book in which the Copenhagen Consensus economists boil down their insights.

Here’s one fact to consider: the entire death toll from the Southeast Asian tsunami is matched each month by the number of worldwide casualties of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive prevention program providing free or cheap condoms and information about safe sex to the regions worst affected by HIV/AIDS would cost $27 billion and save more than 28 million lives. This, say the economists who took part in the Copenhagen Consensus, makes it the single best investment that the world could possibly make. The social benefits would outweigh the costs by 40 to one.

Other options that the economists favored spending some of their $50 billion include providing micro-nutrients to the world’s hungry, establishing free trade, and battling malaria with mosquito nets and medication. At the other end of the scale, responses to climate change like the Kyoto Protocol would cost more than they would achieve, so the economists crossed them off the list of things to do right now.

Regardless of whether we agree with the economists, everybody must admit that we cannot do everything at once. Discussing our priorities is crucial. Often, politicians avoid prioritization. Why? The glib answer is because it is hard. There are many interested parties. No group wants their solution to come last, and no government wants its country’s national challenges to be overlooked.

The UN conference won’t be easy. But it shows that there is a will to put prioritization squarely at the center of attention. It will produce a “to do” list that will demonstrate how to achieve the most that we can for humanity, which could lead, in turn, to more transparent decision-making.

The principles of economics provide a sound basis on which to make rational choices. Now, the discussion needs to shift from the academic sphere to political life. It’s time for all of us to consider and compare our own priority lists.

We must endeavor to shorten the list of challenges facing humanity. But that requires all of us to engage in a debate about what we need to do first.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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Give the yanks a bit of credit

John: A challenge to all of us who live in the first world.

Yes indeed. I read the other day that we in OZ only give half as much to charitable organisations as do the Americans.  Seems to me we could for once take a leaf out of their book, instead of spending so much time here lambasting them. A little credit where credit is due would not go astray at times.

Hopefully the Gates foundation will look at programs that will get some of those kids out of bond labour and into school. Kids as young as five working as virtual slaves is not something the world should tolerate in the 21st Century.

I cannot understand why anyone would want billions of dollars in the bank for themselves anyway. 

How boring, going through life never having had a cheque bounce.  

A step in the right direction

The world's second richest man - who's now worth $44 billion will start giving away 85% of his wealth in July - most of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We are awed by our friend Warren Buffett’s decision to use his fortune to address the world's most challenging inequities, and we are humbled that he has chosen to direct a large portion of it to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” Here: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/AboutUs/Announcements/Announce-060625.htm

There are two simple values that lie at the core of the foundation’s work:

All lives—no matter where they are being led—have equal value.
To whom much has been given, much is expected.

Good news story the world’s two richest men using their fortunes to help the poor.


A challenge to all of us who live in the first world.

The Utilitarian Solution

There's rather a good special on Tahbilk Marsanne at Best Cellars at the moment.

shoot the messenger

What is this, jolly hockey sticks?[1]

Or perhaps, fiddling while Rome burns?

Ak-shally daaarlings, looks more t'me like "Waving a red rag at a bull".


Bjørn Lomborg: "... He is most known for his best-selling controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist, and the allegations of scientific dishonesty that followed it."

The Skeptical Environmentalist: "... is a controversial book ... which argues that claims made about global warming, overpopulation, declining energy resources, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, and a variety of other global environmental issues are exaggerations and unsupported by a proper analysis of the relevant data."

(Cue Costello: "Haw, haw, haw! - Let us prey.")


Now Lomborg turns up with a fictitious $50bio, asking "Hey, you! Yeah, you think-you-wanna-do-gooders over there!"

Worse, he's now 'the organizer of Copenhagen Consensus' - which must be a supremely cynical attempt to take the Mickey [warning: ogg player needed], surely a Luntz-type deception - and even if none of those, it is outright plagiarism from Niels Bohr et al.

WD falls into the trap (Q: wittingly or un-? Well, which is it?) and so gives space to this Lomborg who sets out, once again, to WASTE OUR TIME while we continue to free-fall (but remember, nothing is free) into the ghastly gaping greenhouse maw of miserable self-destruction...


At the risk of falling further into malodorous disrepute, just why, d'reckon, WD is waving this particular red rag? At what bull(s)?

Or is it jolly hockey sticks, just for the sake some 'debate', any 'debate'?

¡ NoMotS !

¡No More of the Same!


[1] jolly hockey sticks: It is a very British expression, gently dismissive of the hearty, games-playing, unscholastic tone of many girls’ public schools, in which the game of hockey is a favourite sport. (Footnotes for non-Brits: public schools in Britain are actually fee-charging private schools separate from the state-run school system; they are patronised by the moneyed middle and upper classes, and the popular consciousness attributes an atmosphere of snobbery and privilege to them, not without cause.)

Which is all Oh, so very funny - since the temperature trace looks alarmly like a hockey stick, and we're on the leading-edge of it, heading for a (hot and getting hotter?) climate-change Armageddon.

Or is it all just a con, as Lomborg (et al, him an' how many of his ilk being paid by the neoCon, big oil - the Anglo-rip-off cabal) alleges?

"To reduce suffering"?

Lomborg asks: "How would you spend $50 billion to reduce suffering?"

The trouble with this question is the enormous vagueness of the aim "to reduce suffering" as an optimisation criterion.  Does it mean, as he seems to be assuming, that we should prevent the maximum number of people, including both those alive today and those who will be born in the next few years, from dying or suffering from hunger or from incapacitating or painful diseases, no matter what the collateral effects might be?  If this is the case, the sort of cost-benefit analysis Lomborg discusses is (relatively) straightforward and clearly the way to go.

Or should our timescale be longer?  Should we be trying to shape the world so that the maximun number of human beings can exist here without undue suffering for the next thousand years, or the next million, or until the sun dies?  In each of these cases, reversing climate change (natural or manmade), pollution, land degradation, etc should somehow be given a greater weight on the "benefits" side -- which may, for example, mean that Kyoto-type proposals become more viable.  It would certainly mean that the costs and benefits of rapidly reducing the world's population to a level which would be sustainable indefinitely into the future must be considered.

So far we have just considered _human_ suffering.  Should we rather be aiming to maximise the wellfare of all those animals that are capable of suffering (Peter Singer's criterion, roughly speaking)?  This could mean costing in the restoration of their habitat (instead of using it to grow food for humans,  thus reducing _their_ suffering), and maintaining the world's human population far below  the maximum sustainable level.  (Alternatively, by killing off all other animals painlessly, we could reduce their suffering to zero and use the entire earth for the wellfare of humanity, which might or might not lead to less _total_ suffering.)

Or is "suffering" too restrictive a term?  Should we be taking into account the welfare of all living things, even those that can't suffer?  if so, should we weight them by number of species, by number of individuals, by biomass, or some other way?.  If by number of species, the welfare of humanity forms only one thirty-millionth part of the total.  If by number of individuals, your welfare is worth exactly the same as that of each one of the 10 to the power 15 bacteria in your gut.  If by biomass, the life of a redwood tree is worth that of 10 000 people.  However it's done, it's likely that the total welfare of all living things on earth can only be maximised if every human being on earth commits suicide ASAP.

 I don't pretend to be giving answers to all these questions.  I'm just trying to make the point that optimisation exercises like Lomborg's can only be carried out if the function you're trying to minimise is, first of all, explicitly defined, and then properly quantified (expressed numerically).  The Copenhagen Consensus economists no doubt did this.  (They're economists, after all, and that's what economists do.)  But Lomberg, in posing his Big Question, seems to be weaselling around this vital aspect of the matter.

There is, of course, no doubt whatever that many of the ways the money's being spent now are inefficient, or even counter-productive, no matter what optimisation criterion is chosen.

Fifty billion dollar makeover for humans.

I would immediately spend the money on genetic research trying to find a way to improve our behavioural characteristics.

If we could improve the quality of the human beast, get rid of, or significantly lessen, all of the dark, primitive forces that constantly swirl inside us, then we could use our technology to quickly solve most of the world's problems.

You have to sort out the cause first rather than try to deal with the enormous, never-ending problems created by deeply flawed humankind.

Priorities in the face of so much need.

One of the most disturbing images is that of children as young as 5 working long days for a pittance in mines, factories, road construction and like industries in third world countries. There are millions of children world wide working in slave like conditions.

The underlying poverty in countries where child slave labour is rampant should be addressed as a priority.

Carry out world wide immunisation of children against preventable diseases.

Ensure HIV/Aids drugs are free to all affected in Africa and other poor countries. Set up orphanges for the proper care of all children orphaned by aids.

But that is just a start in the face of so much need.

Re: Priorities in the face of so much need

It is indeed a matter of priorities, and matter of time-scales.

Lomborg is right to put issues like global warming in the context of other problems. But I think he ignores or downplays the long-term near-irreversibility of the carbon dioxide build-up, acidification of the ocean, warming of the ocean's upper layers, and ice-sheet melting. Any actions we decide to take have to be taken now(actually should have been taken decades ago). Though the biggest impacts of GW are still in the future, by the time they really bite it will be too late to do much. Even now we've locked in some climate change that we will have to live with for better or worse no matter what we do. Lomborg doesn't really address this aspect of the problem - the adaptation we're already committed to will cost.

How to prioritise the response (if any) to anthropogenic global warming with other problems is a fair enough debate. Child health, child labor, abuse of children as soldiers - all these are immediate problems that deserve attention now. Clean drinking water, AIDS, governance - all issues worthy of our attention now.

$50Bn is peanuts ...

The problem with Lomborg's analysis is that he steered the whole Consensus by restricting them to a ludicruously low figure. The people of the USA chose last month alone to borrow $63.5Bn from the rest of the world so they could use that money to buy Chinese consumer goods. Lomborg's "everybody must admit that we cannot do everything at once" is just plain wrong, at least when it comes to his target list: the world could easily afford to do everything on essentially all the listed possibilities in the book without any impact on economic growth and all those good rational things - but we, or more accurately our elected representatives, collectively choose not to do so.

Save the Children

If I had $50 Billion this would be a good start.

1. $25 Billion to treat preventable disease.

“Each year, more than 10 million children under age 5 die from preventable or treatable diseases such as measles, tetanus, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria. Four of every 10 of these lost children are newborns. Malnutrition contributes to more than half of these deaths.

There are effective and affordable solutions. Antibiotics to treat pneumonia can cost as little as 15 cents. A child can be immunized against six major childhood diseases for as little as $15. Vitamin A, one-year dose of which costs just a few cents, is estimated to have saved 1 million lives between 1998 and 2000 alone. Oral rehydration solutions have helped reduce diarrhoea deaths by half.”


2. $25 Billion to provide Clean Water.

 “Dirty water and poor sanitation spread diseases that kill over 5,000 children every day. Half the world's population lacks access to clean water and millions of women and young girls have to walk for hours each day to fetch water for washing, cooking, and drinking. This gift includes training, laying pipes and providing water points to give people within a community clean, safe, life-giving water on their doorstep.”


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