Blog post

The Copenhagen Consensus: making a bet on catching a big fish

8 min read
14 Jun 2013


We are currently looking into a promising opportunity to influence how large sums of development aid are allocated. The Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC), known for research forums organised to prioritise which global problems are most important to address, is aiming to influence the next round of Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) through further research and public advocacy. Here we will discuss this opportunity in further detail. We will start by giving you some background. Then we will give you some information about what we like about the CCC, why we think their undertaking might be effective, and what doubts we have. Finally, we will give you some insight into our current research approaches.


Over the fifteen years this second round of MDGs will be in place, the world is projected to spend some $2.3 trillion on development assistance of various kinds. While the MDGs are not a binding treaty regarding how organisations should spend their money they do draw a lot of attention to particular issues, and are therefore likely to have some influence over how that money is spent. Unfortunately, a significant share of that money will currently go to project that are either unproven or likely to result in far smaller benefits than could otherwise be achieved.

To coincide with this, the CCC will coordinate a new round of research from subject experts. This will build on their previous work in order to determine which of the goals the UN is choosing from would do the greatest good with limited aid budgets. They will then take the conclusions and promote them in person to decision-makers in the post-MDG process, including UN ambassadors, missions, agencies and NGOs, as well as the public through a user-friendly website and interviews and op-eds featured in major newspapers. The aim will be to replace strategies that do not deliver value for money with those that will. At the same time, the campaign will raise support for cost-effectiveness as a key guiding principle for the allocation of development assistance more broadly.

This research is expected to cost around $0.8m, and is already largely funded .The associated promotional activities will cost up to a further $1.2m, and will ensure this research is read and taken seriously by the people who most need to hear about it.

What we like about the project

The CCC has a decade of experience undertaking research and are generally held in high esteem. We have, as some of you might already know, relied on the Copenhagen Consensus as a source in our own research, and we know from experience that they have produced useful reports highlighting neglected opportunities in the past.

They also seem to have some track record of influencing policy makers. Quoting Bjørn Lomborg’s book “How To Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place”:

Micronutrient delivery programs in Africa and elsewhere received significant attention and greater resources after they topped the Copenhagen Consensus list in 2008. The World Bank quoted Copenhagen Consensus research and findings in 2006 when it created its new strategy on combating malnutrition. In 2006, Copenhagen Consensus United Nations brought together 24 United Nations ambassadors, including the Chinese, Indian and American ambassadors, and set them the task of prioritizing limited resources along Copenhagen Consensus lines to improve efforts to mitigate the negative consequences of global challenges.

Although entirely plausible, we will of course try to independently verify those claims by speaking to policy-makers the CCC has been involved with.

Björn Lomborg’s fame seems to give the Centre the unique position to arrange meetings with highly influential people. Lomborg was selected as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2004 and was named as one of the 50 people who could save the planet by The Guardian.

Their track record of getting significant media attention for their findings is also quite good. An example is the collaboration with Slate magazine on the importance of priority setting they had last year. Lomborg also publishes regular op-eds in major newspapers.

So far they have been able to provide a clear plan for the project and sensibly answer most of our questions. They are also keen to participate in our evaluation process and take our ideas seriously.

Doubts we have about the project

Unfortunately, the people we have spoken to do not know who or what is most influential in the UN decision-making process. A lot of interest groups will have some involvement. Currently the debate is centred on the ‘High Level Panel’ dominated by Indonesia, Liberia and the UK, which has just released its report making recommendations about the next set of MDGs - a report which cites the Copenhagen Consensus five times. We do not know whether these recommendations will have a lot of inertia, or whether the final goals will still be up for grabs next year. This will hopefully become apparent over the next few months.

Another worry is that, there will be many groups who will notice this opportunity and try to influence the next round of MDGs. For instance, the Illicit Financial Flows Project was launched by Academics Stand Against Poverty with a similar intention - to promote the inclusion of a target for reducing illicit financial flows. As a result, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre could be ‘lost in the crowd’.

We also worry that the research budget is not sufficient to accurately determine which goals are the best to include. The Centre will be spending under $1m to assess dozens of possible targets over a period of months. The modelling required for this is obviously challenging. Even granting their ability to get leading experts to work for low wages because they regard it as important research, they run the risk of promoting unreliable cost-effectiveness figures. More realistically, the project will consult existing experts on what are generally regarded as the best buys in development. While far from perfect, we expect that advice to be a significant improvement on other competing messages.

Finally, there is little research on how much money the last set of MDGs shifted, and it is a very hard question to answer quantitatively. The impression of most in the development community is that they were very influential - perhaps more influential than they deserve to be. However, it could be that the MDGs were chosen because they were popular, rather than the goals being popular because they were included in the MDGs.

Current research angles

We will continue speaking with the CCC directly to see if their plan makes sense. This has the added bonus of potentially improving the project even if we don’t end up recommending them. We will continue looking into the competing interests in the post-MDG process and whether the CCC can realistically change votes. We are also speaking with researchers who have participated in previous rounds of their research and trying to talk to organisations they claim to have influenced in the past.

Any recommendation of the CCC will necessarily be much more speculative than our recommendation of the Against Malaria Foundation, or anything else we have suggested to date. This can best be illustrated with the following fermi-calculation:


globalAid * mdgInfluence * effect * (effectFactor - 1) * P(marginal effect) * 1/budget


  • globalAid is the global aid spending of 2,300,000,000,000
  • budget is the money the CCC will need in their lobbying effort.
  • mdgInfluence is how much of that aid spending the MDGs are likely to influence
  • effect is how cost-effective the MDGs are likely to be on average.
  • effectFactor is how much more effective we think the CCC proposal is then effect.
  • P(marginal effect) = P(effectFactor|lobbyingFunded) - P(effectFactor|¬_lobbyingFunded_) is how much the probability of the CCC successfully changing the MDGs will increase on the margin if we help them fund the lobbying component of their budget (since the rest of their budget is already funded).

We can try and put in some shaky estimates in the equation.

  • We already know that globalAid = 2,300,000,000,000 USD.
  • We also know that budget = 1,300,000 USD.
  • Let’s say that mdgInfluence = 0.01. In other words: the MDGs influence 1% of global aid spending. Unfortunately not much research has been done on the influence of the last round of MDGs, so this number is just a shot in the dark. If anyone knows about any research, please contact us!
  • Let’s say that effect = 0.001DALY/$. This seems fairly reasonable since many interventions in our experience are around the $1000 for a DALY range. AMF in comparison gives you 20 DALYs for your $1000.
  • Let’s put effectFactor = 2. This also seems like a quite conservative estimate since different interventions can vary by up to a 100x in cost-effectiveness.
  • Finally, let’s say that P(marginal effect) = 0.00125. Let’s say that they are able to change 1 goal of 8 in total and that there is a 1% probability for them to so. This seems quite conservative since the MDG High-Level Panel has already cited the CCC in their report. But remember that we are not talking about the probability of them influencing the MDGs overall, but rather the increase in influence they will have if we fund their lobbying component. In that case 0.00125 is more of a shot in the dark. It is also unclear whether the first dollar in their lobbying budget will have the same marginal benefit as the last dollar. It seems likely that it will, since lobbying is a pretty scalable operation as long as there are more influential policy makers to influence. The CCC also assured us that every dollar in the budget will only be spent on influencing the most influential.

This gives us:

| 2,300,000,000,000* 0.01* 0.001* (2 - 1) * 0.00125 * 1/1,300,000 = 0.022 DALY/$. |

From this it seems like the CCC will get you at least as far as AMF with (what feel like) quite conservative estimates. But there is still a high degree of uncertainty.

Any recommendation of the CCC will necessarily be much more speculative than our recommendation of the Against Malaria Foundation, or anything else we have suggested to date. Unlike the others, it will not come with a suggested ‘dollars per DALY’ figure, because I don’t think picking such a number clarifies what the project offers to donors. However, to have big impacts you sometimes have go for projects with no guarantee of success, and some members embrace that.

Regardless of whether we promote this specific project, we also expect there to be other potential collaborations between Giving What We Can and the CCC in the future, given our shared interest in reducing poverty through better giving and government spending.