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August 21, 2015

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A prosperous future starts with helping the poor

Over the next 15 years, some two billion children will be born, 90 percent in the poorest parts of the world. Providing these kids with a better start would be one of the greatest achievements that humanity could make. Doing so also would be one of the most efficient uses of the resources that the world dedicates to development.

Next month, world leaders will gather at the United Nations in New York to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals: the targets that will succeed the 18 set in the year 2000 by the Millennium Development Goals. The list of potential targets is impossibly long: 169 in all, toward which trillions of dollars will be spent. How they are prioritized will be profoundly important to the lives of billions of people.

Our analysis identified 19 targets that would do the most good for every dollar spent. In fact, each dollar spent on these 19 targets would do four times as much good as spending the same money on all 169.

Opportunities start at birth — or not. Although the child mortality rate has been reduced by two-thirds since 1970, a horrifying number of children still die in their first years of life.

We know from experience that it is perfectly feasible to target a 70 percent reduction in child mortality, but that doing so will be expensive, requiring the construction of effective health services to deliver high-quality care before, during, and after birth. And yet our research shows that it would be money well spent. Keeping kids healthy and well fed are two other highly cost-effective targets. There is an opportunity to do much more. For about US$1 billion a year, vaccination programs could be expanded to prevent childhood pneumonia and diarrhea, saving another million lives annually.

Tackling malnutrition would be another effective use of development dollars.

Improving the quality of education is another worthy goal, as even the healthiest, best-fed children will struggle to learn when their schools are substandard. To be sure, improving the quality of education is not easy; even rich countries struggle to do so. But it turns out to be exceptionally valuable to focus on very early education.

The best education target would be to triple the number of children attending pre-school in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s most deprived region.

It is morally right that every child should be given the best chance to survive, eat well, stay healthy, and receive an education. Now we also know that it is among the best investments we can make.

Bjørn Lomborg is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


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