Google dot org blog - News from Googles Philanthropic Arm

Prioritizing solutions for the world's challenges

Bjorn Lomborg likes to tackle “grand challenges." In 2004, he organized the Copenhagen Consensus to have teams of economists recommend solutions to the world’s greatest problems. Experts were asked to assess what solutions provided the biggest bang for our buck in areas that spanned politics, economics, and the environment. adviser Lant Pritchett authored one of the ten "challenge papers" on education, and I did one on water and sanitation. The results were controversial not so much because of what was ranked at the top - HIV/AIDS - but because of what was at the bottom - climate change.

On Sunday May 25, the Danish Prime Minister opened Copenhagen Consensus 2008, the sequel. Lant Pritchett and I are back too. Lant authored one of two official critiques of the new Education challenge paper. Alix Zwane and I critiqued the ‘08 Water and Sanitation Challenge Paper by Dale Whittington and colleagues. In our contribution we used recent results from research that Alix and colleagues at Harvard and UC Berkeley produced. This work, based on results from field work in Kenya, was funded by one of the first grants and shows that novel water treatment products (one of which is marketed under the name WaterGuard) for home use can be cost-effective ways to reduce diarrhea, a major cause of child mortality. In contrast to the research that Alix and I refer to, Whittington's challenge paper is more pessimistic about whether water and sanitation interventions are the best use of scarce resources that are supposed to improve the lives of the poor. They base this claim mostly on the expense of the technologies they consider (wells, piped water and sewerage).

In our review, Alix and I argue that a key reason that water services are not working for the poor is the same reason why other public services are failing the poor: a lack of accountability between providers, policymakers, and consumers that has resulted in bad management and governance. The best technologies in the world can fail in these settings. That is the basic premise of’s Inform and Empower Initiative. We believe that accountability is linked to information quality and information flows. Citizens and civil society can hold governments accountable if informed accurately of what is being done. Governments can do a better job of improving coverage levels if they know better where need is greatest. The Inform and Empower initiative supports activities that make this information available and actionable.

Tomorrow the panel of 8 economic experts, including 5 Nobel prize winners, will determine its ranking of the Copenhagen Consensus 08 solutions. In the meantime, you can determine your own ranking at Times Online.

Permalink | Links to this post |

The comments you read here belong only to the person who posted them. We do, however, reserve the right to remove off-topic comments.