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UN Diplomats, Experts Prioritize Global Challenges


If you had an extra $50 billion to put to good use, which problems would you solve first? That is the question United Nations ambassadors and senior officials are asking themselves at a conference under way in New York. From U.N. headquarters, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports, the group is analyzing and prioritizing 10 critical global challenges.

The 35 ambassadors and 20 senior U.N. officials are being asked to choose where they could do the most good, if they had $50 billion to spend.

The 10 choices include: global climate change, communicable diseases, conflicts, education, government corruption, malnutrition and hunger, population, water and sanitation, and finally, subsidies and trade barriers.

The U.N. conference is a follow-up to the work of a group of Nobel laureates and other eminent economists, who did a comparative cost-benefit analysis of the world's most pressing problems. The result, known as the Copenhagen Consensus, recommends prioritizing challenges to get the best value for money spent.

Danish professor and Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Bjorn Lomborg is leading the conference. He says ambassadors and decision-makers are being asked to make tough choices that will change their thinking about solving the world's biggest challenges.

"Once you force yourself to make a prioritized list, it really does make you change the way you think," he said. "It also means we get a list that's, if not uniquely representative of the U.N, certainly is indicative of what the U.N. is thinking is important issues and not so important issues. So, we identify clusters of things where you can do lots of good, and most U.N. parties would say, this is what we should focus on first."

Lomborg says the Nobel prize-winning economists, who did a comparative cost-benefit analysis, determined that the most cost-effective programs are in health and nutrition.

"They came out and told us, 'the very best thing you can do in the world is invest in prevention of HIV/AIDS.' For every dollar you spend on preventing HIV/AIDS, you do about $40 of social good," he said. "That is a very good investment. The number two was, invest in malnutrition through micronutrients, essentially give vitamin pills to the world. More than half the world suffers some sort of malnutrition from micronutrients. It's very cheap. For every dollar we spend, we do $30 worth of social good."

The choices facing decision-makers are controversial, because other priorities, such as combating climate change, have proven to be less cost-effective. Lomborg says the challenge facing organizations like the United Nations is to get the most from the resources available.

"In a perfect world, I would agree, we should fix all problems, we should fix climate change and malnutrition and civil war and illiteracy and all the other problems afflicting the world," he said. "Absolutely. I would love to live in that world. But we don't, and we have a moral responsibility to realize that, if we live in the real world, and say we don't fix all problems, then shouldn't we at least try to fix the ones where we can do the most good first."

The conference has attracted ambassadors from both rich and poor countries, as well as top experts from all U.N. agencies concerned with health, education and development. The group plans to issue a list of its priorities next week.

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