Lifting Africa out of poverty: what Lomborg misses

I am a great admirer of Bjorn Lomborg’s approach to development policy. His signature method, which is to apply robust economic cost-benefit analysis to the prioritisation of development goals, is both serious and pragmatic. It offers a viable antidote to the tendency of many to throw money at ill-defined problems, driven only by ideological pretensions, with no clear idea of how much economic value such efforts can produce in return.

Mr Lomborg’s most recent book, titled Best Things First: The 12 most efficient solutions for the world’s poorest and our global SDG promises, is a perfect example of this approach. G. Tracy Mehan III’s review for Mercator goes into more detail, but in summary, the book proposes 12 development objectives that will deliver the most bang for the buck. Backed by nearly faultless no-frills research, the proposed objectives range from eradicating tuberculosis to securing land tenure.

With good reason, Lomborg and his collaborators have Africa squarely in their crosshairs with their work. After all, the continent is, and will be for some time, the poorest in the world. Over the coming decades, as in the past, foreign and local philanthropists, aid institutions and governments, will mount a multitude of initiatives to help lift the standard of living of Africans. To maximise the productivity of their efforts, they would do well to take advantage of Mr Lomborg’s work.

Out of context

However, as with all productivity hacks, the ideas proposed by Lomborg and his collaborators wouldn’t be much use if they were followed heedlessly, without due regard to context and ethical concerns. In fact, they might even be impractical, if not downright harmful. Particularly, one must keep in mind that these proposals are purely economic in nature, their main goal being to produce the maximum quantifiable economic benefit from each development dollar spent.

They are, as it were, an economic compass. And, as we know, to quote Abraham Lincoln, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the peerless 2012 movie, “a compass […] will point you true north […], but it has no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If, in pursuit of your destination, you plunge heedless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”


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In this particular case, we must note that Mr Lomborg’s work presumes that the proposed interventions can be implemented, and sustained, in the environments in which they are most needed. Needless to say, this isn’t always possible, even where the relevant parties have the best intentions. Often, much bigger problems, like insecurity and inadequate infrastructure, must be solved first before any strictly economic decisions can be made.

And while even the solutions to these problems can be quantified in economic terms – as was attempted, for instance, by Paul Collier in the Lomborg-curated 2007 book Solutions For The World's Biggest Problems – they are by no means purely economic. Often, they are driven, or significantly complicated, by ethical, historical, and sociological factors, whose solutions cannot, therefore, be merely economical.


Take, for instance, Somalia. Though eradicating tuberculosis in the country would unlock a tremendous amount of economic value, it cannot be done if a large chunk of its territory remains in the hands of an un-cooperative jihadist organisation. And, even were the murderous Al-Shabaab decide to let in healthcare professionals in a sustainable manner, the roads through which medicine and other interventions would be delivered would have to be built and maintained. Solving these problems, therefore, contribute to the eradication of tuberculosis, but it cannot be adequately accounted for on this ledger.

Furthermore, even assuming the best of conditions, there are always bound to be confounding factors. Besides, economics is hardly the only lens through which development should be seen. Sure, the best way to spend money is to wring all possible value out of it, and we should be sensible when trying to help the poor. But all value cannot, despite the best efforts of economists, be quantified entirely in economic terms.

Of course, this article by no means contends that Mr Lomborg’s ideas are faulty. Far from it. I think his corpus is among the most serious and sincere efforts to practically help the world’s poor. But even he acknowledges that there are limitations to his approach, including technical ones.

As he writes in the introduction to the aforementioned 2007 book, infrastructure, for instance, which undergirds practically all the other proposed solutions, is one of the areas that has received very little research, and so cannot benefit from his characteristically research-driven process.

This, instead, is a friendly nudge to be mindful of context. Economic policies must be made, but we must always remember that they act on people, and that people, who retain their eternal capacity to surprise, act back.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: Pexels

Showing 6 reactions

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  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-08-03 09:59:01 +1000
    The term “underpopulation” only makes sense if you value the economy above everything else. It’s utter nonsense.
  • mrscracker
    When there’s a discussion of Africa’s troubles it never fails that a Westerner’s first solution is less Africans.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-08-02 16:46:02 +1000
    I hope you include “allowing women to access contraceptives” into your suggestion. Because when they do that, they naturally choose to have smaller families.
  • Mathew Otieno
    commented 2023-08-02 15:58:40 +1000
    Author here, addressing a response to Paul Bunyan. You are wrong, my dear sir. The association you’ve drawn between high fertility and poverty is not necessarily a causative relationship. Also, you’ve only given one side of the equation. All fertility control policies around the world are turning out to be disastrous (I don’t think I need to give examples). Leave fertility decisions to individuals, build roads and sort out security (the two are related), and watch people thrive.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-08-02 09:57:24 +1000
    There’s a simpler solution. It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most poverty have the highest fertility rates. So reducing the birth rate would go a long way to alleviating poverty.

    In any case, population growth is a Ponzi scheme. We simply can’t keep building roads and houses forever.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2023-08-02 09:38:47 +1000