Op-Ed: On Underpants Gnomes and Copenhagen Consensus

Jerry Kenney is program coordinator for the Borlaug Institute currently stationed at the Ukulima Farm Research Center in South Africa. Read more Dispatches from Jerry by searching his name in the search bar at the top right. 

It’s an exciting time for people interested in Step 2. In a world of Kony 2012, Step 2 is the boring stuff between raising awareness and money on the one hand and saving the world on the other. For global development efforts the three-step diagram, most famously employed in the business model of the Underpants Gnomes, would look something like this:


Step 1:

Raise tons of awareness and money about issues in developing countries.

Step 2:


Step 3:

Save the world and feel really good.


Step 2 is difficult. For development practitioners Step 2 involves a working theory of change, technical expertise, intimate localized social, cultural, economic, and political knowledge, effective monitoring and evaluation capabilities, and an exhaustive list of other skills.  Often you become so involved in specific projects and communities that it becomes impossible to step back and see the big picture. Luckily, every four years a group comes together to fill this void.

So if you wonder what should replace the question mark in Step 2, then you’re in luck. The latest round of Copenhagen Consensus papers are out. The Copenhagen Consensus project is an opportunity to see what some of the world’s best economists came up with when presented with the following scenario: you have 75 billion dollars to make the biggest impact on humane welfare for the next four years, what would you invest in? More than 65 researchers have spent the past twelve months looking at ways to respond to ten of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Based on these recommendations a group of leading economists, four of whom are Nobel laureates, prioritized policy choices that get the most bang for your buck based on cost/benefit principles. Though this process is by no means without controversy, it forces intense debate among cohorts that often view the value of their work as axiomatic. After all, each dollar spent in pursuit of one thing is a dollar not spent on something else. This year the panel identified the following 16 investments in descending order of 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

The most obvious application from the Copenhagen Consensus results to our work at the Borlaug Institute is investment number six, although there are linkages across many of our programs. Because most of the world’s poor rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, each day our researchers and project personnel are at the frontlines of sustainable agricultural development initiatives across the globe. Our efforts against hunger force us to confront some of the world’s most entrenched obstacles.

Of the major global challenges identified in the Copenhagen Consensus, the Borlaug Institute and Texas AgriLife Research at Texas A&M University are engaged in research and applied programs related to Armed Conflict, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Education, Hunger and Malnutrition, Natural Disasters, and Water and Sanitation. That’s seven out of ten.

Though there’s much left to do, it seems that the Borlaug Institute is on the right track to finding solutions to the major challenges across the globe and replacing the question mark in Step 2 with effective projects and programs.

Photo Credit: Gnome Sweet Gnome by Flickr user kstrebor.

2 Responses to Op-Ed: On Underpants Gnomes and Copenhagen Consensus

  1. Sherie Olano says:

    Two types of HIV have been characterized: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the virus that was initially discovered and termed both LAV and HTLV-III. It is more virulent, more infective, and is the cause of the majority of HIV infections globally. The lower infectivity of HIV-2 compared to HIV-1 implies that fewer of those exposed to HIV-2 will be infected per exposure. “‘:^

    Head to our personal internet site as well

  2. Mohammed Hashim says:

    Providing micro-loans for locals to develope small businesses would be a crucial point.

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