We are not reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. To do?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they are a terrific idea. They’re what happened when the United Nations got together and said, “These are the world’s biggest problems, and this is how we’re going to measure progress on them.” The 17 goals include promises to end extreme poverty and hunger, fix climate change and education, and reduce inequality and corruption.

This year is the halfway point between the start of the goals, in 2016, and 2030, when they are supposed to be achieved, and while the goals have brought much benefit, the world is lagging behind on almost all of them. This is the perfect time to take stock of the SDGs (also known as the Global Goals), recognize what works, admit what doesn’t, and refine our approach so that we can do the most good for those most in need.

Let’s start with something that is working very well. The beauty of the goals is that they forced the world to agree on what matters and on the measures of progress. These agreements, in turn, are driving action: governments, foundations and other funding sources have made firm commitments to aid and other forms of support for the world’s poorest, using the targets to guide the money. As the saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed”.

The problem is this: the Global Goals are too much of a good thing. The 17 commitments are accompanied by a huge number of goals: 169, to be exact.

Having so many targets wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the world worked hard to fund them all. But it’s not like that. According to a recent report, despite unprecedented donor commitments, the goals will be underfunded – in $10-$15 billion dollars annually at least—for the rest of this decade. The figure is roughly equal to all the taxes collected by all the governments in the world.

This massive shortfall calls for a two-pronged approach. First: do everything possible to reduce the gap. Donors must meet and even exceed their commitments to achieve the targets. Although global foreign aid increased in 2022 for the fourth year in a row, most of this increase was for humanitarian and refugee aid required by Russia’s war against Ukraine. In fact, aid to less favored countries decreased.

There are some notable exceptions. France, the Netherlands, the United States and China have recently increased their funding for health in low-income countries. The Gates Foundation is on its way to increase your total donations by 50%, up to $9 billion annually by 2026, focusing on health and development. We hope other donors will follow suit.

Second, even if donors step up, we all need to recognize that inflation and rising interest rates are pushing governments to their limits. The sad reality is that the world is not going to find an additional 10 trillion dollars each year for the Global Goals. Therefore, we must identify the best acquisitions in development, the investments that will do the most with the available financing.

This does not have to involve assumptions. Thanks to decades of research on what works, we can use the data to find the best interventions. For example, in a recent project directed by Bjorn Lomborg and collected in his new book, ‘Best Things First’the economists identified 12 highly efficient policies that bring huge benefits at relatively low costs.

They found that simple steps to improve conditions around childbirth can save the lives of 166,000 mothers and 1.2 million newborns each year, for less than $5 billion a year. And spending an additional $5.5 billion a year on agricultural research and development for the poor would reduce malnutrition, help farmers thrive in a warming climate and lower the cost of food, bringing long-term benefits worth of 184,000 million dollars annually. Other recommendations include efforts to prevent tuberculosis and malaria, vaccinate more children, improve education and strengthen land ownership rights.

In total, the project concluded that the 12 policies could save more than 4 million lives a year by 2030 and generate annual economic benefits of $1.1 trillion for low- and lower-middle-income countries. At a cost of about $35 billion per year (in 2023 dollars) by 2030, this represents a return of approximately 52 times the investment.

But the principles are even more important than any concrete policy. First: Let’s recommit to funding the Global Goals, because they save lives and help lift people out of extreme poverty. And second: let’s recognize that the needs are greater than the funding available, which means we must focus on the efforts that will have the greatest impact. With these principles in mind, we can ensure that the Global Goals achieve the greatest possible benefit.


Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

(**) Bill Gates is Co-Chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

(Read all of Bjorn Lomborg’s columns in EL TIEMPO, here)

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We are not reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. To do?