05/16/2012 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2012

How to Save the World With 75 Billion Dollars

If you had $75 billion and wanted to do something really useful with it, what should you spend it on? This is the question that has occupied the minds of 65 researchers and a panel of some of the world's top economists (including four Nobel Laureates) for the last 18 months. The Copenhagen Consensus studied the biggest issues facing the planet. Their mission: to tell us where policy-makers and philanthropists should direct their attention to make a real, cost-effective, high-impact difference in the world. And yesterday, I was delighted to hear that my decision to embark on a new job this month is beautifully validated by their conclusion.

The Copenhagen Consensus have just announced that based on costs and benefits, the smartest way to invest today is in "bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education." Which essentially means investing in the supplements and fortified foods that will, in the words of Nobel laureate economist Vernon Smith, "get nutrients to the world's undernourished. The benefits from doing so -- in terms of increased health, schooling, and productivity" says Smith, "are tremendous." Which is exactly what my new place of work, GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, has been working on since 2002 with governments, civil society and the private sector in more than 30 countries to achieve. GAIN is now reaching over 600 million worldwide with more nutritious foods to combat malnutrition.

Hunger is a huge issue -- and it's hard to estimate how many people are affected. The Copenhagen Consensus suggests nearly a billion people in the world. But the trick is to remember it's not all about quantity -- the missing piece of the jigsaw when it comes to thinking about food is quality. Because whether you're hungry or not, your body needs micronutrients to work properly -- things like Vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc, and every year, 650,000 children under five die because they don't get enough. But micronutrient deficiencies aren't just about death -- they can affect your height (stunting), how your brain works (cognitive skills), how likely you are to catch infections, and all manner of other things. These all go on to affect health, education, jobs, salary levels, and economic prosperity of not just families, but whole countries. And you don't need fancy science to fix it -- just a bit of money, commitment, and prioritization to make sure that people whose diets are at risk of not having enough of these micronutrients have access to ways of topping up, whether that's cooking with salt that's fortified with iodine, or sprinkling extra vitamins onto their porridge.

This is why the Copenhagen Consensus economists have emerged from a year and a half of hardcore research analysis and calculations to conclude that fortification and supplements designed to increase nutrient intake are the most effective investment that can be made, with 'massive benefits for a tiny price-tag.' Convincing stuff. And it's a relief to finally have something useful to do with that $75 billion I have lying around the house...

P.S. If you're interested, here's the full list, in descending order of cost-effectiveness priority:

1. Bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education

2. Expanding the Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment

3. Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage

4. Deworming of Schoolchildren, to improve educational and health outcomes

5. Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment

6. R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements, to decrease hunger, fight biodiversity destruction, and lessen the effects of climate change

7. Investing in Effective Early Warning Systems to protect populations against natural disaster

8. Strengthening Surgical Capacity

9. Hepatitis B Immunization

10. Using Low‐Cost Drugs in the case of Acute Heart Attacks in poorer nations (these are already available in developed countries)

11. Salt Reduction Campaign to reduce chronic disease

12. Geo‐Engineering R&D into the feasibility of solar radiation management

13. Conditional Cash Transfers for School Attendance

14. Accelerated HIV Vaccine R&D

15. Extended Field Trial of Information Campaigns on the Benefits From Schooling

16. Borehole and Public Hand Pump Intervention

NB: Facts, figures, and quotes in this blog are from the Copenhagen Consensus research documents

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