In 2000, something remarkable happened: the world came together and committed to a short list of ambitious targets that became known as the Millennium Development Goals. The objectives — to reduce poverty, fight disease, keep kids in school and so on — essentially boiled down to eight specific, verifiable goals, subject to a hard deadline of 2015.

Over that decade-and-a-half, governments, international institutions and private foundations poured in billions of dollars more than they had before, specifically to achieve 21 targets within the eight goals. Global development aid alone almost doubled in real terms. Global funding for child health increased eightfold, from less than a billion dollars yearly in the 1990s to $8 billion in 2015. While we didn’t reach all the targets, this huge investment unsurprisingly turbocharged progress.

More children were kept in school, and gender equality improved. Low-income countries across the world saw death rates drop much faster than before. In 1990, nearly one child in 10 died before reaching 5 years old. Child deaths had dropped by more than half by 2015. That adds up to almost 19 million children surviving their fifth birthday who would otherwise have died. 

There was a dramatic reduction in hunger. It went from afflicting 16 percent of the world’s population in 1990 to around 8 percent in 2015. That meant 300 million people avoided the lifelong effects of hunger and malnutrition. And the fight against poverty was also accelerated, cutting the total number of poor by an astounding 1.2 billion people.

For the world’s poor and vulnerable, the world became a much better place thanks to the Millennium Development Goals. While some targets like clean drinking water and sanitation didn’t accelerate, all saw dramatic improvements, making life less challenging, with less hunger, poverty and dirty water, with more schooling and less death from tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, and with mothers and children dying much less.

But things went wrong in 2015 when the world replaced the goals. World leaders could again have chosen to focus on a few crucial targets. They could even have kept the same targets since they are so crucial to the world’s most vulnerable people. We could have focused on pinpointing where the needs are deepest, and the opportunities are greatest.

Instead, the United Nations and world leaders came up with a hodgepodge, absurdly long list of 169 targets for the world to achieve from 2015 to 2030: the Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs do promise to do incredibly important things, like eradicating poverty and hunger, getting rid of diseases, and ending war and global warming. They also set targets for more peripheral issues like providing green spaces.

Having 169 targets is the same as having no priorities at all. And the inevitable result is that we need to catch up on important development measures.

This year, we are at halftime of the SDGs. Yet, with our current progress, even before the setbacks of COVID, we will likely be half a century late on our promises. We could be the generation that fails all or almost all of our promises, which is a consequence of not prioritizing. So how do we fix things from here?

First, we need to prioritize which targets matter most. For most people, less hunger and better education matters more than well-meaning pledges of increased recycling and global awareness of lifestyles in harmony with nature (two of the 169 targets).

Second, we must acknowledge that some challenges can be fixed with cheap and straightforward policies, and some cannot. Promising peace and ending all violence, crime and corruption is laudable, but it is likely impossibly difficult to achieve, and there is little knowledge of how to get there.

In contrast, we know how to fix many pervasive problems effectively at a low cost. Tuberculosis is entirely treatable and has been so for more than half a century, yet it still quietly kills more than 1.5 million people annually. While nine out of 10 rich-country 10-year-olds can read and write, only one in 10 can do so in the world’s poorest countries. And more than 2 million children and 300,000 women die during childbirth each year. All these problems have cheap, effective solutions. They should get our full attention but don’t.

Over the last FEW years, my think tank has worked with the world’s top economists to establish where each dollar can be spent on the SDGs to do the most good. Our research, which we will share with you over the next three months, sets out to salvage some success from the failure of the SDGs.

We will succeed when we are honest and set priorities. Let us not be the generation that just failed the global promises. Instead, let’s become the generation that does the smartest things best and first.

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