The highest returns on energy invested to address problems appear to be:
Below is much of the evidence used in making the recommendations in the executive summary above. It is largely curated information and not at all my own work. I have simply taken from what I believe to be the best sources on this topic: the UN, the Copenhagen Consensus, and the effective altruist community (mainly 80,000 Hours in this case). I have included hyperlinks wherever necessary and possible, but for the sake of ease of reading, have refrained from using extensive use of quotation marks and other textual “noise”. I will put my own words in italics from here on.
We’ll first take a look at the recently released Sustainable Development Goals from the UN, which are a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals that ran from 2000 to 2015.
From the UN Sustainable Development Goals
On September 25th 2015, countries adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.
For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you.
Do you want to get involved? You can start by telling everyone about them. We’ve also put together a list of actions that you can take in your everyday life to contribute to a sustainable future.
Below are the goals, artificially divided into three categories related to people, planet, and prosperity for the sake of understanding the focus of each goal. Several overlap and many can be achieved through increased prosperity alone.
Next, we will take a look at the Copenhagen Consensus’ attempt to prioritize the above goals and resulting targets in terms of impact per dollar spent.
Nobel Laureates Guide to Smarter Global Targets to 2030
The 17 goals above are operationalized into 169 measurable targets in an attempt to see progress over the next 15 years. Upon announcing the 17 goals above, the Copenhagen Consensus immediately went to work trying to figure out which of the 169 targets would have the greatest impact.
Prioritizing 19 targets instead of the UN’s 169 targets is equivalent to doubling or quadrupling foreign aid.
Over the past 18 months, we (the Copenhagen Consensus) have published 100+ peer-reviewed analyses from 82 of the world’s top economists and 44 sector experts along with many UN agencies and NGOs. These have established how effective 100+ targets would be in terms of social value-for-money.
An Expert Panel including two Nobel Laureates has reviewed this research and identified 19 targets that represent the best value-for-money in development over the period 2016 to 2030, offering more than $15 back on every dollar invested. In a hurry? Download the graphic overview here.
Below are the 19 specific targets representing the best value-for-money from the original 169 targets operationalized to meet the 17 UN goals above.
Lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%
Halve malaria infection
Reduce tuberculosis deaths by 90%
Avoid 1.1 million HIV infections through circumcision
Cut early death from chronic diseases by 1/3
Reduce newborn mortality by 70%
Increase immunization to reduce child deaths by 25%
Make family planning available to everyone
Eliminate violence against women and girls
Phase out fossil fuel subsidies
Halve coral reef loss
Tax pollution damage from energy
Cut indoor air pollution by 20%
Reduce trade restrictions (full Doha)
Improve gender equality in ownership, business and politics
Boost agricultural yield increase by 40%
Increase girls’ education by 2 years
Achieve universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa
Triple preschool in sub-Saharan Africa
Reaching these global targets by 2030 will do more than $15 of good for every dollar spent.
“The expert analyses suggest that if the UN concentrates on 19 top targets, it can get $20 to $40 in social benefits per dollar spent, while allocating it evenly across all 169 targets would reduce the figure to less than $10. Being smart about spending could be better than doubling or quadrupling the aid budget” - Bjorn Lomborg.
Below is a table of the benefit per dollar spent on the top 14 targets from the UN Sustainable Development goals as analyzed by the Copenhagen Consensus. Of special note is the fact that investing in fewer trade restrictions is an order of magnitude more benefit per dollar spent than the second best return.
Table 1: List of the highest benefit/cost interventions
*The above is curated from The Nobel Laureates Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030 Kindle Edition - a product of the work done by the Copenhagen Consensus.
Beyond the UN and the analysis of their goals by the Copenhagen Consensus, the effective altruist community has also done extensive work attempting to figure out the most effective causes to support. Below is much of that work distilled by the organization 80,000 Hours, who in turn relies on several organizations itself.
80,000 Hours - What are the world’s biggest problems?
Which global problems are most important to work on? To answer, we’ve drawn together research from the Global Priorities Project (affiliated with Oxford University); the Open Philanthropy Project (a multi-billion dollar foundation); the Copenhagen Consensus Center (a major think tank); and other researchers.
We’re looking for the biggest problems in the world, but that isn’t enough for a problem to make it onto the list: it could be too hard to solve, or it could already receive a huge amount of attention. We’re looking for problems that are big and solvable and neglected (this is why). And this means our list is a bit different from what you might first expect.
Table 2: List of the world’s biggest problems
Click through to see our reasoning for each problem. If there’s no link, the profile isn’t yet complete, but will be published soon. This is a preliminary list, so the answers are likely to change. There’s also many pressing problems we didn’t yet investigate. One point higher means the problem is roughly three times as pressing.
Surprised at the list?
Learn more about how we compare problems in part 2b of our career guide. You can see our reasoning for each individual problem by clicking through to the full profile.
Potentially promising problems we haven’t yet investigated
And many others…
If you want to be notified when we do these profiles and update our list, join the newsletter.
Which problem should you work on?
Comparing global problems involves difficult judgement calls, so different people come to different conclusions. We made a quiz that filters our list based on your answers to some crucial questions.
TAKE THE QUIZ
Once you have a personalised list, the next thing to factor in is your personal fit. Different problems need different skills and resources, so some people are better placed to work on them. To learn more about what’s most needed in each problem, click through to read the full profile. If you’re early in your career, don’t feel too constrained by the skills you already have – you can build expertise where it’s most needed.
You might also be more passionate about some problems rather than others. If that’s the case, then factor it in – it’s probably better to work on a second tier problem that you’re super motivated by rather than a top tier one you’re not. Just don’t forget you can become motivated by new areas if you know that the work helps others and become good at what you do. If you’re unsure whether you’ll be motivated, try it out. (Read more about how to assess personal fit.)
The following will be entirely my words again and so I will discontinue the use of italics for my voice.
To my knowledge, the best quantitative data we have on effective interventions come from the Copenhagen Consensus. Table 1 above summarizes the top 14 interventions. The reason they don’t all make the top spots in my executive summary list that began this article is that not all of the interventions currently have effective organizations to implement them, and the organizations also tend to discount events that are qualitatively awful, but harder to quantitatively estimate - for example the existential threats from AI and climate change that make the top spots in the executive summary.
Furthermore, those numbers do not reflect the gains from promoting this prioritization process itself, which takes the second spot on the executive summary list because of how much more effective some actions are over others. See the example of taking action on trade restrictions versus tripling preschool in Sub-Saharan Africa in Table 1 as an example.
When we get down into the lower items, numbers four through six on the executive summary list, organizations like GiveWell become the best source for taking action through donations to support those causes. So while Table 1 above shows that malaria infections is the lowest return intervention among the possible health interventions listed, in actual decision making about where to donate funds, the organization Against Malaria is probably the best choice as it ranks highest amongst charitable organizations for effectiveness.
In theory it is better to donate to an organization that deals with contraception or aspirin heart attack therapy as the potential impact is higher, however, in reality we have more and better information about the positive effects of malaria prevention due to Against Malaria’s work than any organization dealing in those “more effective” interventions. Good charities - ones in which we are reasonably sure of high impact relative to other choices available - simply don’t exist to give money to in those causes.
Ideally, articles such as this one and the ever growing awareness of these issues will push better charities into existence so that money can be allocated to better causes (i.e. contraception, aspirin, etc.) in the developing world. In the future, it would be great if GiveWell’s top charity were dedicated to either trade reform or contraception; even getting a decent charity involved with immunization would be a win as that has higher expected returns than the currently top ranked charity dedicated to malaria and so would be more effective.
Finally, it is worth noting that while increased prosperity should be prioritized because of its potential to alleviate or eliminate many of these problems, education (learning more specifically) is the fundamental factor that drives the creativity and innovation needed to enhance prosperity and therefore appropriate government policies need to be offered and accepted to create a learning society. This means that public participation in elections and political willpower demonstrated through voting is arguably one of the highest impact activities any of us can engage in.
Only better, more relevant education can solve our pressing global problems. We need students, teachers, and all citizens of the world working, thinking, and creating solutions to these urgent issues.