A New paradigm on global development – Think solutions, not problems

One of the most controversial videos at Unreel, the documentary festival organized by us a few weeks back, was this one, a A Ted Talk by Bjron Lomborg in which he talks about prioritizing global development issues based on his experience with the Copenhagen Consensus.

I’m not going to comment much on the video (I highly recommend you see it) except to summarize it’s main points, which are:

  • There are lot of problems in the world – commutable diseases, AIDS, malaria, climate change – it would be great if we can solve all those problems. But we don’t.
  • contrary to the norm of many development forums, there should be a focus on solutions to problems, rather than problems themselves. Because at the end of the day it’s solutions that matter no matter how grave the problem is.

This is essentially what Copenhagen consensus does. By assessing potential costs and benefits of proposed solutions to global development issues it is able to prioritize a list of solutions their expert which solutions to be tackled first. The process is lead by 50 international economists including 5 Nobel laureates.

The video gets a lot of people worked up. Partly (no, let me say mostly) because their pet issue doesn’t make the top of the list. The 2004 version of the Copenhagen consensus – the 2008 round is now under way – rates, for example, solutions to climate change at the bottom of the list as the worst possible projects one can do.

This obviously upsets a whole lot of “activists” dedicated to the cause of climate change.  But short from sentimental reactions (militant environmentalists like to think of Lomborg as a heretic) I can’t think of any reason why anyone would disagree with the basic idea of the Copenhagen consensus.

Sure, you can, possibly, disagree with the way in which the list is made, but at the end of the day you have to concede that if you spend more money on some issues, you spend less on some others. One would think then, that everybody would be happy with a scientific method of coming up with a prioritized list. But disappointingly this is not the case.

I don’t expect activists or NGOs to prioritize issues or celebrate the Copenhagen consensus. That’s asking for too much. At the end of the day you have to admit that NGOs, activists and other development organizations on the ground are driven by their  own convictions about the world rather than a careful analysis of global development issues. I don’t expect this to change, nor do I think there is anything particularly wrong with this or whether changing that is even possible or necessary.

I can confirm that, as a voluntary youth organization working on development issues, Beyond Borders doesn’t do a pseudo-Copenhagen consensuses either (although we vaguely tried when we started out, I recall). It would be next to impossible for someone to volunteer for something they don’t believe in.

But the point is, someone has to do the prioritization. That responsibility must lie with funding organizations who are in a position to guide which “causes” gets funding and which doesn’t. You might think that’s kind of cruel for people dedicated to a cause which is not on the priority list, but that’s kind of how it happens anyway, except the prioritization is neither transparent nor by the looks of things — scientific.

Initiatives like the Copenhagen consensus are a welcome development, it would among other things, at least prove as a wake up call for people (particularly young people) mislead by media hype generated by certain issues. How else can one explain for example, this list of most popular “causes” on Facebook.

— Deane

Deane is a Core Group Member from Beyond Borders Sri Lanka, the opinions expressed are his own and not of Beyond Borders or it’s partners. Deane maintains a blog where he often writes about issues related to (mostly) economics and politics.

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Posted on 05/25/2008, in Media, Opinions, Sri Lanka and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Yes..the Copenhagen Consensus makes a lot of sense. However, it considers only the existing solutions. The Forum considers that AIDS/HIV has no cure, but if a scientist claim that s/he can get a vaccine for HIV if s/he can spend a billion dollars on it, then the whole story changes. But nobody can take it as a solution because we don’t know until the research is done, whether the money is wasted or not.
    It is true that with the available solutions some problems may seem economical to solve, but that doesn’t mean the problems that seem so costly right now will always be like that.
    All said, a priority list can be very essential to decision making in the short run. It can help spend the limited resources for the maximum output.. But on the long run, it is a different story..

  2. Yeah sure. Good point about research funding, no one can predict human innovation.

    But most development aid isn’t going into scientific research, it’s going for specific programs, or governments. And also Cop. Consensus works once in every 4 years that should address and account for any new developments.

  1. Pingback: Copenhagen Consensus : Live web Cast « Beyond Borders Sri Lanka

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