How Better Nutrition Helps Solve Two of the World’s Biggest Problems

The 10 most effective ideas for improving the world.
May 14 2012 1:53 PM

How Better Nutrition for Children Helps Solve Two of the World’s Biggest Problems

A group of Nobel laureates analyze the cost-effectiveness of solutions to the world's biggest problems

Over the past two weeks, I have challenged Slate readers to decide what priority to give competing ways to help the planet. We looked at 10 topics, from biodiversity to water and sanitation. In total, there were nearly 40 investment proposals, each with a cost and its own set of benefits.

For nearly every single investment, the benefits were greater than the costs, meaning that these were almost all investments that would undeniably help the planet. But, with limited funds, we need to start somewhere, and the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 project challenged you to think about where you would—and wouldn’t—direct additional funds first.

While Slate readers were considering the research, a team of economists (including four Nobel laureates) did the same in Copenhagen. They, of course, had examined draft versions of the papers and also considered the findings from two additional research papers for every topic. (These were the so-called “perspective papers,” which we use to provide a transparent critique of the original research. All of the perspective papers are now available online.)

The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 "expert panel" had the advantage of being able to interview the authors and to bounce ideas off of one another before coming up with a consensus priority list. (The comments section on Slate allowed us to have our own conversation about the research papers; I’ve endeavored to answer many of your questions in sidebar articles throughout the series.) And the expert panel also had the opportunity to choose not to prioritize some interventions, or to bundle different priorities together. You can download the panel’s 10-page Outcome Document that explains all of the thinking behind each of the priority choices they made; I think it’s a must-read that shows us how we could effectively achieve much more in the fight against humanity’s biggest challenges.

Let’s turn to the Slate reader findings. Here they are:

RANK SOLUTION CHALLENGE
1 Family Planning Population Growth
2 Bundled Micro-Nutrient Interventions Hunger and Malnutrition
3 Tobacco Taxation Chronic Diseases
4 Civil War Prevention Armed Conflicts
5 Schoolbased Health and Nutrition Programs Education
6 Effective Early Warning Systems Natural Disasters
7 Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage Infectious Disease
8 The Reinvented Toilet Water and Sanitation
9 Increased Funding for Energy R&D Climate Change
10 Agricultural Productivity R&D Biodiversity
11 Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment Infectious Disease
12 R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements Hunger and Malnutrition
13 Hepatitis B Immunization Chronic Diseases
14 Deworming of Children Infectious Disease
15 Geo-Engineering R&D Climate Change
16 Extension of Protected areas Biodiversity
17 Community Led Total Sanitation Water and Sanitation
18 Protecting All Forests Biodiversity
19 Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment Infectious Disease
20 Adaptation Planning Climate Change
21 Acute Heart Attack Low-Cost Drugs Chronic Diseases
22 Post-Conflict Reconstruction Armed Conflicts
23 Low$1.8/tC Global Carbon Tax Climate Change
24 Retrofitting Schools to Withstand Earthquake Damage Natural Disasters
25 Generic Pill for Heart Attack Risk Reduction Chronic Diseases
26 Investing in Accelerated HIV Vaccine Development Infectious Disease
27 Information Campaign on Returns to Schooling Education
28 Sanitation as a Business Water and Sanitation
29 Strengthening Structures Against Hurricanes and Storms Natural Disasters
30 Community Walls Against Floods Natural Disasters
31 Conditional Cash Transfers for School Attendance Education
32 Increase Competition in the Fertilizer Market Hunger and Malnutrition
33 Salt Reduction Campaign Chronic Diseases
34 Crop Advisory Text Messages Hunger and Malnutrition
35 Civil War Intervention Armed Conflicts
36 High $250/tC Global Carbon Tax Climate Change

This is a striking set of priorities. We can see that Slate readers agree with the Nobel laureates (and with the cost-benefit analysis itself) that the bundled micronutrient interventions are of great importance, both in the battle against hunger and in the endeavor to keep more kids in school.

There is agreement, also, on the importance of setting up early warning systems in developing nations to better protect populations from natural disasters. Both groups agree that it is important to expand childhood immunization coverage and to keep making malaria medicines affordable.

But there are some fascinating differences, as well. The concept of "overpopulation" was a very polarizing one in the Slate reader comments, and it was raised in connection with almost every single challenge. We looked at research that focuses on filling the “unmet need”: reaching those women who want to stop having children (or delay their next childbirth) but are not on contraception. This immediately shot to the top of our poll and, despite vigorous voting on other proposals, never slipped from the "top priority” slot.

The Nobel laureates ranked this lower, based on concerns about the feasibility of actually filling all of the “unmet need”; they felt that a better approach would be to first zero-in on the households that were easier to reach.

Tobacco taxation was very popular with Slate readers. The Copenhagen Consensus panel gave this a lower ranking, based on the belief that, while this was undeniably an effective intervention, it was largely a question of political will rather than funds.

And the concept of the ”reinvented toilet” was liked by Slate readers, but the expert panel noted that this was a long time away from availability, involving research and development lasting 15 to 20 years followed by marketing, with an unclear pathway to success. While it’s a noble goal, attempts to calculate costs and benefits are highly speculative, and the necessary seed money has already been allocated by the Gates Foundation.

Costs and benefits shouldn’t drive our decisions, but they are an important consideration to take into account. I hope that this series has helped to challenge your preconceptions about aid and development spending choices. The goal of Copenhagen Consensus is to provide a base of economic evidence on which we can improve our decisions. There is no decision more important than how to best step up the fight against humanity’s biggest challenges.

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