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Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have everything? In the meantime, priorities matter

Summary:
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have everything? If we had an infinite amount of money, we could apply it to solving all of our problems simultaneously. We could allocate resources to tackling pollution, AIDS, malaria, biodiversity, gender and racial inequality, transgender discrimination and lack of access to education. Even with that short list, we’d be less than ten percent of the way down the roster of things people want to be solved.Bjørn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus assembled 60 teams of economists, together with NGOs and acknowledged UN and private sector experts, to research the pressing problems for humankind that might be targeted. They identified a list of the 22 “core issues,” including those already mentioned, plus issues such as global warming, clean water, infant

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Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have everything? If we had an infinite amount of money, we could apply it to solving all of our problems simultaneously. We could allocate resources to tackling pollution, AIDS, malaria, biodiversity, gender and racial inequality, transgender discrimination and lack of access to education. Even with that short list, we’d be less than ten percent of the way down the roster of things people want to be solved.

Bjørn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus assembled 60 teams of economists, together with NGOs and acknowledged UN and private sector experts, to research the pressing problems for humankind that might be targeted. They identified a list of the 22 “core issues,” including those already mentioned, plus issues such as global warming, clean water, infant mortality, population growth and poverty.

It’s a daunting list, but it can be tackled systematically. We do what we can, and put most of our energy into those that are the most urgent, and those that can make the biggest impact. 

At a UN meeting addressed by Lomborg, he handed each delegate cards depicting the listed problems, and asked them to arrange the cards in order of importance. Many delegates were flummoxed. One remarked, “but these are all important and worthwhile issues.” Nonetheless, Lomborg asked them to put what they saw as the most important ones on the top of their pile, with the others below them in order of significance.

They were learning about “opportunity cost,” the idea that resources spent on one thing cannot also be allocated to others, and that in life we have to prioritize. Since we lack infinite resources, we have to decide where to put them. Malaria, for example, kills up to 3 million persons per year, many of them young children. It has killed more people than all of the wars of human history, including the two World Wars. Many people would say that the effort to overcome and eliminate it should rank higher than that of providing more transgender toilets. 

Many would say that providing clean water worldwide, and eliminating the diseases spread by contaminated water, would save and enhance more lives that would an intensified campaign against money laundering and illicit financial flows. They might all be “important and worthwhile issues,” but without infinite resources we have to ask which ones are more important and more worthwhile. 

I’ve used the Lomborg technique in my own lectures, handing out cards and asking students to prioritize. Some of them, for the first time in their lives, have to decide just how important some issues are, compared with ones they might rate more pressing, and needing more urgent and more immediate attention.

This approach is set to become more vital in the face of the worldwide economic shrinkage that the current pandemic will produce, at least in the short term. We have to ask ourselves, given fewer resources, which programmes and initiatives might be put on hold while we concentrate our more limited funds on the issues that matter more? Because we can’t do everything, we have to concentrate on the things that will make the biggest positive impact on people’s lives. It’s not that complicated.

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