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How To Save the World … on a Budget

A series of U.N. initiatives helped the developing world … and we learned all the wrong lessons from them.

May 2024


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Here’s some refreshingly good news: Leaders from around the world have come together with a plan to end poverty, heal the planet, and ensure global peace and prosperity by the year 2030.

Here's some bad news: Based on everything the research tells us … this is probably doomed to fail — while costing about six trillion a year.i

And here’s some weird news: If we really wanted to save the world … we could do it way cheaper.

We’re not doing that, by the way.


Let’s be honest: Those of us who live in advanced, prosperous countries … can be in a little bit of a bubble.

If you doubt this, consider the following:

In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the rate of undernourished people in the developing world decreased by 46 percent.ii The number of childhood deaths around the world was cut in half.iii So was the number of people living in extreme poverty.iv

And … the media didn’t talk about it all that often.

Although, to be fair, that’s probably because we had so many other important things happening during that era.

[News footage of Furby]

So, what happened here? There were a lot of factors. Given its enormous population, China getting wealthier put a big dent in the poverty numbers. v Cleaning up drinking water in the developing world improved

But there’s another factor that went largely unnoticed. There was a big international effort to help the world’s poorest people and — this part’s pretty unusual — it actually kinda worked.

These initiatives, begun by the United Nations in 2000, were known as the Millennium Development Goals. And what set this effort apart was that they picked only a handful of concrete objectives — things that everyone could agree on, like reducing child mortality and eradicating extreme poverty — made sure they continuously measured the outcomes, and subjected their strategies to a ruthless cost-benefit analysis.vii

And while the U.N. didn’t hit all their targets, even when they fell short … it was pretty impressive. Child mortality didn’t fall from 12.7 million to four million, for example — but it did fall from 12.7 million to six million.viii

It was a real story of progress … until 2015.

That was the year the Millennium Development Goals ended. And, because they had been so successful, the U.N. decided to launch another big 15-year initiative. But this one … looked a little different.

Whereas the original program had only eight goals, measured by 18 specific targets, the new ones have 17 goals … and 169 targets. And let’s just say they’re a little … fuzzier.

For example, the original program had one fundamental, easily measurable target for education: get every child in the world enrolled in elementary school.ix

By contrast, the new one has 10 targets.

Some of them aren’t that measurable: things like making sure kids have the education necessary to be “global citizens” and live “sustainable lifestyles.”

Some of them, well-intentioned though they may be, are not that fundamental: things like expanding scholarship opportunities … for people from small island nations … who want to study IT.x

And, as you might suspect, having that many objectives — and having them that poorly-defined — tends to be a recipe for disaster. In 2023, the U.N. reported that the world was now behind on 50 percent of the goals … and had stalled or gone into reverse on another 30 percent.xi

That failure led the social scientist Bjorn Lomborg to ask some of the world’s leading researchers a simple question: How much good could we do if we used those resources for projects based on the same principles as the original Millennium Development Goals: simple, measurable, and cost-effective?

And the answer, revealed in his resulting book, Best Things First, is: A lot — if we’re willing to just focus on the basics.

In much of the world, for example, diseases that Americans barely have to think about can often be a death sentence, especially for kids. Consider: In the 2010s only about 20 children a year died from whooping cough in the U.S.xii By contrast, across the rest of the world — that number was about 160,000 deaths a year.xiii

And there are plenty of other diseases like this: measles, yellow fever, rotavirus.

An expanded campaign to simply get more of the vaccines that treat these diseases to the poorest parts of the world would cost about $1.6 billion a year — and return benefits worth $167 billion a year through things like lowering medical costs or enabling parents who’d otherwise be caring for a sick child to go back to work. More importantly, it could save an estimated half a million lives a year.xiv

Another way we could help: food.

Around the world, there are still 768 million people suffering from hunger. 2.7 million mothers and children die from a lack of food every year.xv

Much of this is because the poorest parts of the world also tend to be the ones most lacking in agricultural technology — which is why the researchers found the single most cost-effective way to help is through funding agricultural research & development, things like better seeds to increase farmers’ yields.

Estimated cost: $74 billion. Estimated benefit: $2.5 trillion … and 130 million fewer malnourished people by the end of the decade.xvi

And the researchers found similarly incredible returns on investment on a wide variety of fronts.

Making sure landowners in the poorest parts of the world have clear rights to their property? It costs $1.8 billion a year — but generates $37 billion in benefits by allowing landowners to develop, sell, or borrow against their land.xvii

Preventing the deaths of pregnant mothers and infants in countries with inadequate healthcare? $4.9 billion a year in costs — 1.4 million lives saved annually.xviii

And, yes, that’s a lot of money to spend, but remember: We’re currently spending six trillion a year on the U.N.’s goals … without getting much in return.

Bottom line: We probably can’t fix everything, but we can make progress on the big issues — and save millions of lives in the process. Doing so, however, requires discipline: The discipline to ask tough questions about costs vs. benefits. The discipline to set clear goals. And the discipline to prioritize what’s most important.

After all, if history has taught us anything … it’s that it’s easy to get distracted.

[News footage of Furby]


  1. What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?  United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
  2. Best Things First — Bjorn Lomborg, pg. 29
  3. Ibid, pg. 27 
  4. Ibid, pg. 30
  5. Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China  World Bank
  6. "Clean Drinking Water" (Marian Tupy and Ronald Bailey)  Human Progress
  7. Official List of MDG Indicators  United Nations
  8. The Millennium Development Goals Report  United Nations
  9. Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education  United Nations 
  10. Targets and Indicators  United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  11. The Sustainable Development Goals Report: Special Edition  United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  12. Whooping Cough Is Deadly for Babies — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  13. Whooping Cough (Pertussis)  National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
  14. Childhood Immunization  Copenhagen Consensus Center
  15. Agricultural R&D  Copenhagen Consensus Center
  16. Ibid.
  17. Land Tenure Security  Copenhagen Consensus Center
  18. Maternal and Newborn Health  Copenhagen Consensus Center


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Footage | Brookings Institute // Copenhagen Consensus Center // Center for Disease Control // Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development Goals // Our World in Data: World Bank Poverty and Inequality Platform, WHO,  Global Health Observatory (2022), WHO; UNICEF (2022), Troeger et al. (2018)Jolliffe et. al (2022),  U.S. Census Bureau,  World Bank Poverty and Inequality Platform // United States Mint: // YouTube: ABC News, ABC World News Tonight, AP News, CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, Fox 13 News Utah, NBC Nightly News, WESH 2 News, WION Getty:  Abstract Aerial Art, AFPTV, Anadolu, ANDREY DENISYUK, Antoine Lassalle, Artorn, Ben Speck, Bettmann / Contributor, BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, Christian Ender, David Silverman, Doug Armand, Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, EMMANUEL DUNAND, emyerson, Getty images, HUIZENG HU, KATERYNA KON, malerapaso, Mario Tama, MartinHarvey, Nutcat, Patrick Jube, Per-Anders Pettersson, Photo and Co, Ralf-Finn Hestoft, Sean Gallup, Sean Gallup, Stas_V, STR, TARSO SARRAF, thianchai sitthikongsak, Universal Studios, Xinhua News Agency, yogysic, yura123, YURI CORTEZ, Tetra Images, Nordic United Publishing, Ashley Cooper, SimonSkafar, Nikada, patrickeditor, cofotoisme, aerocaminua, Leontura, BlackBoxGuild, Maxtrio, CasarsaGuru, Discovery Access // Pexels: Anna Shvets, Davis Vidal, eberhard grossgasteiger, Engin Akyurt, George Dolgikh, Gerd Marinelli, Ilya Klimenko, Jermaine Ulinwa, Jim Fawns, Joseph Phillips, Karolina Grabowska, Nextvoyage, Pixabay, pranjal srivastava, psykon, Sumon Errorsungmu heo // Unsplash: Danny Burke, Diane Helentjaris, Luke StackpooleOlga Thelavart // Amazon: Bjorn Lomborg // FreePik: macrovector // Miguelon756-5303 // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.


  1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
    What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?
  2. Best Things First
    Book by Bjorn Lomborg
  3. World Bank
    Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China 
  4. Human Progress
    "Clean Drinking Water" (Marian Tupy and Ronald Bailey)
  5. United Nations
    Official List of MDG Indicators
  6. United Nations
    The Millennium Development Goals Report
  7. United Nations 
    Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
  8. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
    Targets and Indicators
  9. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
    The Sustainable Development Goals Report: Special Edition
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    Whooping Cough Is Deadly for Babies
  11. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
    Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
  12. Copenhagen Consensus Center
    Childhood Immunization
  13. Copenhagen Consensus Center
    Agricultural R&D
  14. Copenhagen Consensus Center
    Land Tenure Security
  15. Copenhagen Consensus Center
    Maternal and Newborn Health

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