Making a List, Checking It Twice

The Summer Olympics takes place every four years. So does another, lesser-known event: the Copenhagen Consensus Conference (CCC). The forum involves a group of established and renowned economists discussing the world’s problems, and then prioritizing ways to address those issues. A 2005 video from TED Talks features Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist, who explained the rationale behind CCC. He called the project “the defense for boring problems,” and noted that the solutions are prioritized without concern of making us, or the media, “feel good.”

Comparing the list from 2004 and 2008 shows a shift in priorities. The top four in 2004: Control of HIV/AIDS, Providing Malnutrients, Trade Liberalization, and Control of Malaria. In contrast, 2008 shows the top four as: Micronutrient Supplements for Children, The Doha Development Agenda, Micronutrient Fortification, and Expanded Immunization Coverage for Children.

The list is made with a global viewpoint – so to think about it from India’s perspective is interesting. Would the priorities still be the same for India? Also, keep in mind that this prioritization occurred from the economic mindset. I’ve always had an issue with this, since that means that a cost-benefit analysis is going to occur – which in turn means that everything must be quantified. But do the numbers always tell the full story, or is it a neat and packaged way to explain things?

In the video about the 2004 list, Mr Lomborg explains why these were listed as “good” projects instead of, say, climate change. Climate change, although picked up widely by the media, is very expensive given the little impact money has – according the video, spending $150 billion per year would postpone global warming by only six years. On the other hand, spending $27 billion over eight years on controlling HIV/AIDS would avoid 28 million new cases of the disease. Liberalizing trade would supposedly bring $2,400 billion dollars into the world, half of which would go to the Third World and help lift millions out of poverty very fast – but, as Mr Lomborg points out, movies aren’t made about trade, and it doesn’t necessarily make us “feel good.”

The approach is realistic. Everything can’t be given a top spot, and eventually, one has to decide where to send funds, spend time, and make investments. CCC puts emphasis on making sure that spent dollars go a long way. But it also depends on the value you place on using an economic framework to make your decisions – which is where I get stuck.

And even if I take the economic approach, how can we truly quantify everything? What about the negative consequences (for example, would trade liberalization always lead to a good outcome for a country like India)? Do consequences come with a quantifiable price? While I find some priorities agreeable – especially the ones with health, malnutrition, and education – and I do support making choices from solid data, it’s hard to swallow when large-scale decisions can be made solely based on those figures.

So maybe I am someone that likes to “feel good,” after all. But is that a detriment to finding effective solutions?

4 Responses

  1. Good article, thank for sharing

  2. W. Edwards Deming once said “The greatest gains and losses can not be measured, but they must be managed.” Deming knew a thing or two about economic development – he helped the impoverished nation of Japan become self-sufficienct and then prosperous. Bringing people out of poverty involves more than acting on those things we can measure. We need to appreciate an economy as a system, including nterdependencies and interrelationships – things for which economists have such a hard time assigning value.

  3. That’s a great way of putting it, Andrew. Not everything in economics can be quantified.

  4. […] success of TED makes its arrival in India even more exciting.  At TC-I, we covered a few TED talks here, here, and […]

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