How to Save the World

Posted: December 29, 2015 in evidence based policy, science, Uncategorized
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Cat'S Eye Nebula, Ngc 6543, Cosmos, Space, Stars

Each 15 years, the United Nations sets sustainable development goals, priorities for development, to improve our world and human quality of life worldwide.

Until last year, no one looked at the actual effectiveness of the work being done.  A ROI analysis (that’s Return on Investment for those new to the idea) hadn’t been conducted.  Cost/Benefit analysis hadn’t been done, or if they had, it hadn’t been publicized or used to make smarter goals.

Nonprofits often suffer from their very idealism.  Working toward a good cause makes us feel warm and fuzzy.  Often, the causes we support are close to our hearts because of personal experiences.

I once heard nonprofits, and those who work in nonprofits, and those who support them, are terminally optimistic.  We think we can do a lot more than we actually can, make a bigger impact than we can, change more systems than we can.  And these are good causes we’re talking about; regardless of your personal cause, you can agree that having clean air and water, having healthy food, reducing rates of violence…these are good things, things we want.

The trouble is, without those cost/benefit analyses, we aren’t going to be able to do much.

To save the world, we need to prioritize.

I teach a goal setting course, and the first thing we review is the basic SMART goal system.


it looks like this!


We use the SMART goal system because without these five elements, goals are just floating around in space, without specific actions available to move forward, without a good understanding of what we’re doing and why.

The Copenhagen Consensus Center is a nonprofit organization, mostly economists (and experts in multiple fields), devoted to finding the most effective ways to work and spend toward good causes.  It recently released their report on the 2015 goals (set in 2000) and the UN’s goals moving forward.  (The center’s president went on Freakonomics Radio to discuss their findings, I highly recommend listening to the interview in it’s entirety.)

And, not surprisingly, it found some problems.

Picture by Ryan McGuire


Some goals are at cross purposes from each other.  For example, goals of eradicating hunger and to ensure environmental sustainability.  To combat hunger, we need more food, which means using pesticides, fertilizers, and high yield farming practices.  To be environmentally responsible, we need to use less pesticide, less fertilizers, and move away from factory farming.  See the problem?


We have a limited amount of money, time and energy – even awareness and caring is more and more difficult, as we’re bombarded from every side with a new issue to care about or problem to fight.

We have to prioritize.

One cause is not better or more worthy than another, but prioritizing allows us to do the greatest amount of good with the time, money, and energy we have available.  We need to recognize the enormous difference between what’s ideal, and what’s real.  We need to put our money, time, and energy into what works, what’s evidence based, what’s going to improve our world the most.

There were 17 goals and 169 targets in the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030.  169 things cannot all be a priority.

We have big problems, and we need to think through how we fix them.

The Copenhagen Consensus has all of their research available for review online, with information about the most effective methods to combat our most pressing problems.  These top outcomes are the most effective places to focus our time and money:

  1. Properly nourish children for their first 1000 days
  2. Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and focus on green R&D
  3. Expand immunization for children
  4. Promote family planning and reproductive health education
  5. Review and reform trade systems and barriers

From these five areas flow widespread effects.  For example, feeding children properly for at least their first 1000 days means they are less likely to be stunted (making better lifelong health more likely), have better brain development (increasing their cognitive abilities and improving their ability to learn) and show better emotional stability.  This means societies have more productive members, infant mortality is decreased (likely to be linked with reducing global population growth), and our education dollars are more effective.

If we are really committed to making a change in our world, we have to start looking at data.  We have to stop throwing money into programs that don’t work, start researching what does work, and fund that.  We can still be warm and fuzzy, but also effective.  And that can make all the difference in the world.

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