Which World Problems Are ‘Worth’ Solving?

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How do you prioritize solving the world’s problems? Can this even be done?

Last night, I heard a guy speak, Bjorn Lomborg, who has tried to compare the world’s biggest problems, apples-to-apples, and find the best ones to attack based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Across the board, from health to food security to biodiversity, he presents a list of winners and losers, based on the dollar benefit you’d presumably get from each dollar spent on the problem (see full list below).

Cutting tuberculosis deaths 90%, for example, supposedly gets you back $43 for each dollar spent, while reducing infant mortality gets only nine. Providing better cook stoves to cut indoor pollution gets you $10 per dollar spent, while cutting outdoor air pollution gets you only thirty cents. The numbers are from Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center think tank, which uses prominent economists to build models from raw data generated by large global organizations.

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My first reaction during Lomborg’s talk was to be critical. He’s awfully hand-wavey. He’s not factoring in morality or equity. He’s using an outdated economic view based on labor productivity and income, questionable in this age of automation and deflation. He’s a controversial figure, and seems to dismiss climate change too easily.

And most important, how does he really know if any of these projects would actually work as modeled – e.g. that you could actually stop tens of millions of people from cooking indoors with cow dung?

I started to appreciate Lomborg more as he went on, however, because what he’s doing is hard, takes guts, and is valuable, if not perfect. He didn’t come across as arrogant, or pretend to have all the answers. And he presented lots of facts about shocking worldwide problems like the extent of violence against children and women, that most Americans don’t know about and could be mitigated if they were made a global priority.

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While somewhat coldblooded, Lomborg’s perspective is a great one to have in the mix. Putting a dollar value on the length or quality of a human life is hard to stomach. But looking beyond emotion to help prioritize investments is not (Lomborg begins by saying that most development dollars go to heartstrings-type causes).

In most countries and on most specific issues, voices like Lomborg’s get drowned out by other, more emotional arguments – for example in the debate about the cost of end-of-life healthcare in the U.S.

Lomborg says he hopes his analysis will steer wealthy decision makers like NGOs and foundations (he mentioned Mike Bloomberg) to make even marginally better decisions about where to spend, and to attack some of the really easy big wins. He seems to have caught the attention of Bill Gates, who blogged about him a couple years ago.

So hats off to him and those like him who attempt the hard and unpopular work of digging up good data in under-studied areas and injecting it into the global debate, whether or not they’re 100% correct. And thanks to the Long Now Foundation for hosting this talk last night (see Stewart Brand’s own write-up of Lomborg’s talk).

Below is the full chart from the presentation handout. You can read more about this project in the Washington Post, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, or hear about it in this Freakonomics podcast. See also more Lomborg YouTube videos below.

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And here’s Lomborg being interviewed by Foreign Affairs:

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