Doing the best things first | Inquirer Opinion

Doing the best things first

We traditionally reflect, at the end-of-year holidays, on the consequences of our past behavior, while contemplating the good we want to do in the 12 months ahead. When we think up resolutions, we’re striving to determine how we can do better in our own lives. Perhaps we can also take the occasion to consider how we might achieve such improvement on a larger scale.

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


In 2023, we’d be at the halfway point, given the 2016-2030 timeline, but we’re far from being halfway in hitting our putative targets. Given current trends, we’d likely achieve them half a century late.

What is the primary cause of our failure?


Our inability to prioritize. There is little difference between having 169 goals, and having none. 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, like boosting recycling and promoting lifestyles in harmony with nature. Trying to do everything at once, we risk doing very little at all—as we’ve done the last seven years. It is, therefore, long past the time to identify and prioritize our most crucial goals.

The think tank Copenhagen Consensus Center, together with several Nobel laureates and more than a hundred leading economists, however, did just that—identifying where each dollar can do the most good. We could, for example, truly hasten an end to hunger. Despite great progress over the past decades, more than 800 million people still go without enough food. Careful economic research helps identify ingenious and effective solutions. Hunger hits hardest in the first thousand days of a child’s life, beginning with conception, and proceeding over the next two years. Children who face a shortage of essential nutrients and vitamins grow more slowly, both physically and intellectually. They will attend school less often, achieve lower grades, and are poorer and less productive as adults.

We can effectively deliver essential nutrients to pregnant mothers at little cost. Providing a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement costs a bit over $2 per pregnancy. This helps babies’ brains develop better, making them more productive and better paid in adult life. Each dollar spent would deliver an astounding $38 of social benefit.

Consider, as well, what we could accomplish on the education front. The world has finally managed to get most children in school. Unfortunately, the schools are often of low quality, with more than half the children in poor countries unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. Typically, schools have all 12-year-olds in the same class, although they have different levels of knowledge. No matter which level the teacher teaches at, many will be lost and others bored.

The solution which has been 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, this will, over a year, produce learning equivalent to three years of typical education. What would this cost? The shared tablet, charging costs, 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. Each dollar invested would deliver $65 in long-term benefits.

Why didn’t we take this path first? Because in trying to please everyone, we spend a little on everything, essentially ignoring the most effective solutions. When we fragment our attention and try to please everyone, we end up implementing superficially attractive, but terribly inefficient, policies.


Along with hunger and education, there are about a dozen other crucial targets we could and should hit with effective policies, like drastically reducing tuberculosis and corruption.

The moral imperative is clear: We must do the best things first. Now that’s a resolution, both personal and social, that can be the path to a better future. Let’s resolve to walk down that road as we consider the dawning of the new year.


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

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TAGS: Copenhagen, Sustainable Development Goals
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