I’ve written a couple of posts critical of the Copenhagen Consensus exercise being run by Bjorn Lomborg’’s Environmental Assessment Institute and The Economist. The stated objective is to take a range of problems facing developing countries, and get an expert panel to form a consensus on which ones should be given the highest priority. This is a reasonable-sounding idea, and the process has produced some useful contributions in the form of papers by experts arguing the importance of particular problems.
There are however, two big difficulties.
The first is that the underlying idea is much trickier than it sounds at first sight. Suppose, for example, you come to the conclusion that malnutrition is a bigger problem than disease. That presumably doesn’t mean that you should cut health budgets to zero and spend all the money on food. Presumably, the implication is that, at the margin, it would be a good idea to redirect resources from general health to nutrition. But such a conclusion is inevitably going to be specific to particular countries, or even particular regions. How can a general conclusion be drawn?
The problem is even worse when you come to look at things like “conflicts” and “governance and corruption”. In what sense can you prioritise and rank improving governance and corruption or reducing conflict relative to malnutrition and disease. It ought to be obvious that these are not alternative expenditure items in a budget. Rather the effectiveness of anything you might want to do to reduce malnutrition and disease will be drastically undermined by the prevalence of conflict and corruption. Conversely, poverty and deprivation are natural sources of conflict and corruption. I don’t assert that this is an insoluble vicious circle, but I don’t think it’s amenable to being solved in a six-month, part-time exercise by ten people, no matter how brilliant.
The second big problem is the joker in the pack, climate change. Lomborg is well-known for making the argument that money spent on mitigating climate change would be better allocated to improving sanitation and providing clean drinking water, which just happens to be another of the ten challenges. (I’ve criticised Lomborg’s argument here). So there’s a natural suspicion that the whole exercise is designed to provide support for Lomborg’s position and that the idea of ranking development challenges in general is a cynical cover.
There are a couple of ways we could check on this. First, we could wait and see what the panel comes up with. If they reject the whole idea of ranking on the grounds I’ve set out above, I’ll be impressed and surprised. If climate change is ranked highly, or even if it ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack, and is not much discussed in the final analysis, I’ll admit that my concerns were baseless. To see the whole thing as a setup, two conditions would need to be met:
- climate change would need to be at or near the bottom of the rankings
- this finding would need to receive a lot of attention in the reporting of the results
It’s the second point that’s crucial in my view. Having seen a lot of top 10 lists in my time, the big interest is usually in the top two or three places and in arguments about whether the right winners were chosen. The also-rans rarely get much attention. So it would be surprising, in a legitimate exercise of this kind, if attention was focused on the bottom places.
For those who are too impatient to apply these checks, you could look at what Lomborg himself has to say. He certainly doesn’t seem to be in much doubt about the outcome.