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Govts can think big and act fast on urgent issues. But it won’t work until they start small

The failure of governments to find multilateral solutions to global problems means that significant challenges are being neglected.

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  • The failure of governments to find multilateral solutions to global problems means that significant challenges are being neglected.
  • Instead governments can begin to solve global issues by taking a pragmatic, local approach to find innovative solutions.
  • We’ve tested this approach by providing solutions to three challenges that are fundamental to the development of countries and their citizens.

Rising polarization, nationalism, corruption, lack of political will and insular political agendas have combined to reduce the viability of many multilateral solutions to global problems. Just look at climate change to see the obstacles standing in the way of countries all pulling in the same direction.

Despite these barriers governments can’t avoid these large problems. Instead, they can tackle even the thorniest of issues by thinking big, acting fast, but starting small. In practice, this means viewing a global concern through a local lens; addressing it with a pragmatic but innovative solution, and as positive results emerge, scaling it so its reach broadens among wider regions and groups of people.

We applied this approach to three challenges that are fundamental to the development of countries and their citizens: the need for food and clean water, and bridging the digital divide.

The three critical global imperatives we identified would be perfect vehicles for these targeted resources. Moreover, the solutions come at minimal political cost, eschew multilateralism for simplicity, and deliver economic, social and political benefits that outweigh their price.

1. Enhance access to nutrition from ages 0-3 and promote healthy diets for all ages

Inadequate nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life can result in irreversible stunting of growth, cognitive ability disorders, and decreased productive potential as adults. Governments can address this problem through subsidies, nutritional surveillance and education.

  • Subsidize biofortified food. Governments should provide support payments for people under the poverty line in remote and rural areas to purchase biofortified food. These subsidies would encourage local farmers to add vitamins and minerals to their crops since they would have a growing and reliable market in which to sell their products.
  • Implement systems that monitor and forecast nutrition risk. Governments can track nutritional deficiencies in their populations with programmes like the Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS), designed to tackle malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. NEWS algorithms analyze data related to food availability and diets in the region to identify patterns predictive of impending nutritional threats.
  • Mainstream maternal and child nutrition in health systems. Governments need to ensure that primary health care facilities providing routine maternal and child development services integrate child nutrition and feeding practices into their interactions with patients.

2. Clean up and improve management of water supplies

By 2025, water shortages and pollution and an increase in deadly but preventable water-related diseases will plague two-thirds of the world’s population. We recommend three approaches involving natural systems, digital systems, and systems management to meet water needs.

  • Develop innovative sanitation systems. Rather than default to costly and wasteful sewage systems, governments should also adopt decentralized technologies for water containment, treatment, safe disposal and recycling. One promising approach is to reuse local wastewater for drinking, organic fertilizer and insect-derived animal feed.
  • Use green infrastructure. Governments should complement “grey” water management infrastructure –human-made water and wastewater treatment plants, pipelines and reservoirs – with green infrastructure, such as forests, wetlands, and mangroves that can provide water purification; natural storage, boosting water supplies; and flood management. In 2014, São Paulo, Brazil, nearly ran out of water amid the region’s worst drought. Today, local forest restoration has reduced water pollution and increased dry season water flow, thereby boosting annual water supply at a significantly lower cost than traditional water management.
  • Design a data-driven way to manage water resources using advanced technology. Nearly 32m3 billion of water are lost annually due to poor water infrastructure. Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) systems can detect water leakage and quality issues through analysis of water resources, while precision agriculture, which calculates crop water levels and requirements, can reduce outsized farm water consumption by as much as 75%.

3. Guarantee access to digital information and digital literacy

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed digital socio-economic schisms. In some form, remote schooling, working and socializing will remain more important than ever, and technological competence is essential. What can governments do quickly and relatively inexpensively?

  • Ensure universal connections to digital infrastructure. In developing countries, governments can provide universal, reliable, and stable internet connections to rural or underserved areas by mandating that telecom operators speed up the construction of broadband networks.
  • Bridge the material access gap. Smartphones are ubiquitous. By enhancing productivity, political participation and self-improvement, smartphones pale against PCs, laptops and tablets, which are out of reach to many poor or less educated people. Governments can bridge this affordability gap through loans and direct provision of devices. This is already happening in response to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, state governments have distributed tablets with e-learning material to students, while England and Germany have subsidized the purchase of laptops and electronic devices for less wealthy students so they can participate in online learning opportunities.
  • Promote digital literacy with education. Digital citizens courses should be mandatory to equip all residents with essential technological knowledge and skills. In many countries schools provide formal technology lessons, but governments need to offer public online courses that target more vulnerable segments of the digital population such as senior citizens and the uneducated.

Governments can still achieve tangible success with these large issues by thinking big and starting small. Out of that, as scaling becomes possible, the big problems that seem so intractable today will be brought down to size.

Vincent Chin, Managing Director and Senior Partner, Global Leader, Public Sector practice, Boston Consulting Group

Hans-Paul Bürkner, Chairman, Boston Consulting Group

Dwaa Osman, Lead Knowledge Analyst, Boston Consulting Group

Janmejaya Sinha, Managing Director and Senior Partner, Boston Consulting Group

Trish Stroman, Senior Partner and Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum. 

Also read: Like steam engine & atom bomb, 4th Industrial Revolution tech is creating a new world order


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