By Bjorn Lomberg11:01PM GMT 02 Dec 2015Comments1 Comment
The decision by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan to use 99pc of their Facebook shares to fund charitable initiatives over their lives is an overwhelming statement of generosity. The massive challenge for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will be how to achieve the most good with this money.
Individual philanthropists play a vital role in development, not least because – unlike political initiatives or groups dependent on fundraising – billionaires can afford to ignore lobby groups and popular attention.
Consider the leadership that Bill Gates is showing on renewable energy innovation. He has rejected the arguments of the green energy lobby and climate activists, who claim wrongly that today’s inefficient, intermittent solar and wind energy technology is ready to replace fossil fuels and just needs to be rolled out. While other charities dole out photogenic but mostly ineffective solar panels, Gates is leading the search for genuine breakthroughs so tomorrow’s solar panels do everything that fossil fuels do for us today.
When there are billions of people in dire need, how do Zuckerberg and Chan prioritise? Over the past 18 months, the Copenhagen Consensus Center worked with more than 80 leading economists, including several Nobel laureates, to look at exactly that question: how to spend money to do the most good for the world.
We examined the so-called UN Global Goals, the 169 development targets that are replacing the Millennium Development Goals, covering practically every way that money can be spent to help people and the planet.
Experts identified the costs and benefits of the development targets. Making choices informed by cost-benefit analysis means – whether you’re an international donor organisation, a billionaire or a smaller-scale philanthropist with much less – you can focus just on what social, environmental and economic good can be achieved.
This research project revealed – as the Zuckerbergs will find – that not every “good investment” is equal. Among the 169 targets, the panel identified 19 phenomenal investments, where every pound spent will return at least £15 of societal good.
The top 10 among these targets would be an excellent place for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to start.
Annual spending of $3.6bn (£2.4bn) would achieve universal access to contraception and family planning. There would be 150,000 fewer maternal deaths and 600,000 fewer children being orphaned.
A longer-term way to tackle malnutrition is to invest in agricultural research
Focusing on child nutrition would be an excellent way of promoting equality, one of Zuckerberg and Chan’s goals. Spending just $100 (£67) helps a child to be stronger and smarter, stay longer in school and ultimately give much more back to society. The benefits are worth 45 times more than the costs.
A longer-term way to tackle malnutrition is to invest in agricultural research. This isn’t the kind of philanthropy that will create photo opportunities with smiling children – but it will make a huge difference. Spending £5.3bn more on this annually would generate a steady 0.4pc extra increase in crop yields each year. This sounds modest, but would be enough to improve food security, reduce prices and achieve social good worth £181bn.
Tackling tuberculosis (TB) would be another way to make a real difference. This ignored disease affects the poor, claiming 1.5m lives each year. Helping almost every sick person will cost about £5.3bn a year, but provide benefits worth almost £233bn, including, on average, another 20 years of active, productive life.
Tuberculosis claims 1.5m lives each year
Doing everything on the top 10 list would cost, annually, £29bn – roughly the equivalent of the £30bn current value of Zuckerberg and Chan’s Facebook shares.
The benefits would be enormous for one lifetime: 440,000 lives saved from malaria with 100m fewer cases; 5m fewer chronic disease deaths; 1.3m fewer TB deaths; £56bn in extra food generated for the planet; 30m children receiving one more year of school in Africa; 1.1m HIV infections averted, and much more. In all, every pound that Zuckerberg spends would achieve £32-worth of good.
Zuckerberg could also use his moral leadership to do two things: first, like Gates, to encourage other philanthropists to invest in areas where small investments make a huge difference. Second, to push governments to embrace the policies that will make the biggest differences.
Bill Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, attends a conference at COP21,
Bill Gates Photo: Christophe Ena/AP
Chief among those is free trade. A successful Doha trade agreement could lift 160m people out of extreme poverty – more than any billionaire could ever achieve alone. Each person in the developing world would become £670 richer per year. Pushing to make this happen could be the 11th great thing Zuckerberg could do.
There is no shortage of suffering or problems. By spending wisely, Zuckerberg and Chan’s generosity could make the world of difference.
Dr Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” (Cambridge Press, 2001) and “Cool It” (Knopf, 2007)