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12 Best Things

Read time: 6 minutes.
best things first

Many of us have given money to projects in the developing world that are seeking to help in different ways. These often focus on particular things like schools or orphanages or small-scale employment projects or health.

But say you were given 10 million £$ to invest, how would you spend it? How would you even work out how to spend it? What do those who can get the money do?

The UN has developed its huge programme to solve the world’s problems - the 2015-2030 ‘Strategic Development Goals’ (SDGs). There are 17 goals and 169 targets! These are mostly admirable in theory but given the UN’s track record, and most central-planning attempts, they are flashy, costly, reward the wrong people and don't work very well. Online journal The Conversation has a sympathetic analysis – but see the comments - these reflect the pragmatic and political pitfalls. The UN says it just needs more money...


There are people with a genuine desire to do something that does work. Organisations like Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre have already laid out practical plans that would achieve real change at a fraction of the UN’s cost and without the political authoritarianism. Dr Bjorn Lomborg is an economist, a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and writes for the Wall Street Journal, NY Post. The Economist listed his recent book Best Things First as one of the best books of 2023.

From the many potential options, 12 areas of development have been identified based on the best cost-benefit calculation. We tend to think of the good being done in emotional terms, and that’s valid, but it’s the sustained strengthening of the economy that will underpin long-term stability and well-being, so costs and benefits are judged from a hard economic perspective.

Bjorn Lomborg has visited several countries to advise governments on these priorities.

12 best things


This used to be a killer disease in the West and in the UK special isolation wings were added to hospitals to treat it. It has been eradicated for 50 years but is still common. This is partly because it's hard to diagnose and needs consistent treatment, so focused education and local clinics are important. The financial costs are relatively easy to calculate and the benefits can be determined from work-days, child-care, education and skills etc not lost. Each £ returns £46 of societal benefit!


Schools have been invested in but the amount of learning may not have advanced. This is about fitting the teaching to the speed of learning while maintaining the social age-based cohesion of the class. This can be achieved by a hybrid curriculum of tablet-based self-paced learning, with other joint work. The software-driven modules also allow for learning where teachers with the appropriate skills are rarer. Education and know-how drives value in all areas of community life. Cost-benefit ratio 1:65.

Maternal and newborn health

‘Newborn babies are at ten times greater risk of dying in low-income countries than in rich countries’ This costs up to 6% of GDP in lost potential. Basic Emergency Obstetric and Newborn Care (BEmONC) service packages have been worked out and need to be applied. Cost-benefit ratio 1:87.The Economist listed his recent book Best Things First 

Agricultural R&D

Food poverty has decreased from a third to a tenth of the world population - but obviously still too high, malnutrition kills over 2 million annually. A brilliant 6-fold improvement in crop production over the last 100 years due to improved fossil-fuel powered fertilizers, mechanisation, better crop yields and storage techniques has also reduced prices. But much more to do. One obstacle is small-holders who cannot produce crops to the same scale as large farms – so our warm support for small-scale development may not be the right thing – nor subsidies that can distort results. More local R&D is needed to ensure production is maximised for local conditions. Cost-benefit ratio 1:33 to 1:250.


The Mal’aria (bad-air) disease had been well known throughout the world and largely eradicated in developed countries. This is due to draining swampy land, insecticides, physical barriers and quinine treatment. It is mainly restricted to Africa now but with increased resistance to drugs and insecticides, deaths are rising. Physical protection (nets ) is a key factor. Cost-benefit ratio 1:48


This is about reducing corruption which costs the intended beneficiaries of projects over £1 trillion each year through collusion, bribes, sub-standard products etc. Instead it benefits the already powerful and weakens the community’s trust in officials and the belief that anything could change. An on-line system can create transparency, reduce costs through better competition and speed up the whole process. Cost-benefit ratio 1:38 – 309!


The first 1000 days of a child’s life from conception is crucial for cognitive and physical development, and a quarter of the world's youngest are not getting the right amount. Mothers often need supplements when pregnant or breastfeeding to pass to their babies. Cost-benefit ratio 1:14-18

Chronic diseases

These affect all parts of the world but the poorest with greater impact. Infectious diseases are decreasing while non-communicable diseases predominate. Across the world the main causes of death in 2019 were: heart 33%, cancer 18%, infection 14%, injury/war 8%, respiratory 7%. As we know some of these are down to lifestyle and are tackled in various ways from medicine to taxation! Cost-benefit ratio 1:23

Childhood immunisation

Vaccination in the Covid era has acquired a bad name but historically ethically administered programmes have been very successful, reducing childhood disease in the West to about 2% of what it was 100 years ago. The developing world has not yet caught up, so more application is needed. Cost-benefit ratio 1:286

More trade

Middle-income Americans gained a 29% increase in purchasing power through foreign trade (ie imports cheaper than local), which was great if it wasn’t your job that was lost. But trade helps all through competition, economies of scale and innovation. Reducing trade barriers (tariffs, quotas) seems to benefit all in the long run – but especially developing countries. Cost-benefit ratio 1:7 (richer) Cost-benefit ratio 1:95 (poorer). However other barriers can occur from war and politics leading to a reassertion of self-sufficiency eg in energy, food or manufacturing. From a Western perspective, the growing wealth of China, Asia or the Middle East from our imports has not made them friendlier but aggressive, as they realise our dependence on them.

Skilled migration

Imagining the world as one nation, allowing free movement will help the poorest as they will move to where they can get a better life (skilled or unskilled). Even though global inequality has dramatically fallen by a third in the last 20 years, an estimated 2 billion (a quarter of world) plus dependents, would move. Such is the pull that being illegal or in danger is little deterrent. But the effects of 20% wage reduction, failing social and governing institutions make this unpopular for receiving nations. Even if longer-term benefits appeared, it would not be 'their' country any more. Cost-benefit ratio 1:45. More on this anon!

Land tenure security

The World Bank estimates 70% of people don’t have access to formal land registration. This affects domestic and commercial security. Owning land or property leads to investing in it, reducing poverty. However there is resistance to this. ‘In Zambia, the president outright owns all the land’, so creating tenure disempowers existing elites. Rwanda, however, was the first in Africa to regularise land, but it is a huge undertaking marking and agreeing every piece of land. Cost-benefit ratio 1:18 (rural) 1:30 (urban).

The elephant

The UN’s goals have a glaring omission – better governance. This is probably the biggest single factor in the flourishing of communities (and was foundational for the West’s prosperity). As an economist, Dr Lomborg’s book is invaluable as a well-researched cost/benefit study. It will benefit right-minded governments and also make us think about real-world priorities. He is however very diplomatic as he works with national leaders but the points about E-procurement and Land tenure – both simple in concept, point to resistance from rulers to carry out reforms. As the majority of nations in the UN have low scores for democratic accountability it’s maybe not surprising the UN doesn't emphasise it.

The Bible is highly critical of this behaviour:

Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves;
they all love bribes and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them. Is 1:23

Africa is often a focus for development and has huge mineral wealth but widespread poverty. Many there recognise governance failures and push for change. In 2006 a lucrative prize was set up by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to improve governance and that work continues: It is our conviction that governance and leadership lie at the heart of any tangible and shared improvement in the quality of life of African citizens. Kenyan Wanjiru Njoya is a prolific commentator, especially on anti-white racism, violence and misgovernment.

There is also the question of who pays for these Best Things. Most funding will come from Western taxation but the World Bank has been heavily criticised for diverting funds from these priorities to ‘climate issues’. The developing world needs cheap energy, not hamstrung by UN preoccupations. Roughly 600 million in Africa still lack access to electricity.

We need to push our Christian and other charities to agitate more for good governance rather than a ‘don’t rock the boat’ policy – which plays into the hands of political abusers. Some charities have spent more time lecturing the West on real or imagined historical issues than addressing the more serious current ones.

Through all this grand planning, support for small-scale work is always welcome as it adds to whatever else gets done, and in the many countries where Christians are persecuted it provides vital aid and encouragement that would come from nowhere else.