When It Costs More to Do Nothing

As individuals and as nations, progress depends upon measuring the impact of our actions. To act with real consequence, to repair the human and societal damages plaguing much of today's world, we must understand the outcomes of each humanitarian intervention, environmental initiative and educational program we put in place.

But it is equally important for us to understand the consequences of their absence. When the link between health and human rights is so often ignored, what is the cost of inaction?

My son Francois-Xavier Bagnoud understood the importance, the urgency, of taking action to help those in need. As a young rescue helicopter pilot, Francois flew over 300 dangerous missions through the Alps and deserts of Africa, ultimately sacrificing his life at age 24 in a helicopter accident for those he worked to save. He was passionate about helping others, and I knew that my son's work deserved a legacy that lived beyond his short years. Knowing that action needed to be taken, I sold three-quarters of my possessions and dedicated my life to helping children and their families pull themselves out of poverty by starting the Association François-Xavier Bagnoud, or FXB International.

FXB focuses its efforts on the world's most marginalized population -- children impacted by extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS. And for more than 20 years, I've traveled the globe implementing holistic and human rights-based programs for this "discarded generation." Designed to eliminate poverty and create entire communities that are self-sufficient, FXB's programs help raise these children by strengthening the families and villages that support them.

But much work is still to be done. More than one billion children continue to suffer in absolute destitution, lacking basic human necessities such as food, education, shelter, healthcare and protection from violence. Many of these kids face unimaginable futures as child soldiers or sex slaves, while others are pushed into criminality or terrorism as a lifeline for survival.

Despite these harsh realities, the challenges of the poor are often ignored. Why is it, when the passing of each minute marks another lost opportunity to save a life, we can so easily forget the plight of the world's impoverished?

The answer, simply put, is economics.

Through my work, I've learned one absolute fact: while humanitarian arguments are compelling enough to tug at heartstrings, the loosening of purse strings is an entirely different matter. During periods of economic boom, generosity to philanthropic causes is common practice, but this same generosity is the first thing to disappear in the wake of recession.

The problem with this type of reactionary decision-making is that it only exacerbates the situation. Slashing program funding in schools, for example, perpetuates continued poor education, potentially causing children to drop out of school, leading to fewer job prospects and reduced lifelong earning potential.

By contrast, early investment -- in education, in health care, in small businesses -- can help a family pull itself out of poverty, and more importantly, stay out. The resulting ripple effect helps support entire communities in becoming self-sufficient, resulting in better education, greater earning power and improved access to medical care -- all of which contribute to a more stable economy and society.

I've long known that the financial benefits resulting from early intervention greatly outweigh the initial cost of investment, but as my years at the helm of FXB have taught me, policymakers respond best to hard evidence. So I started to ask myself: what can I do to show governments that investment upstream leads to better results downstream? How can I prove that not funding a program can actually create additional costs?

I needed to persuade a prominent economist to conduct research and quantify the results of inaction, a task much easier said than done. There was too much or not enough data to consider, I was told, and it would take years to complete. Dr. Sudhir Anand, professor of economics at Oxford University, under the direction of Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen, understood the immediacy of the project and spent more than four years researching and incorporating feedback from other economists into the task.

His findings culminated in October 2012, when the FXB Harvard Center for Health and Human Rights published The Cost of Inaction (COI). Dr. Anand's new book is essential reading for any leader, from government heads to CEOs to activists at the helms of NGOs. It provides a new framework for evaluating the consequences of a failure to act, showing that if people decide to not take an action--whether not funding a new educational initiative or not providing health care --the cost is not zero and money is not saved. The book outlines specifically how an organization cannot focus solely on the initial money saved after deciding not to fund a program, but also must think about outcomes that occur as a result of that decision.

There are numerous case-studies in COI examining the long-term benefits of intervention versus the cost of inaction. Analyzing an FXB-Village operating in Rwanda, Dr. Anand shows not only that the program lifted 70 percent of participating households out of poverty and increased secondary education involvement by 200 percent, but that when evaluated over a 30-year period, the net value of increased incomes is estimated to be over $650,000.

But the evaluation framework outlined in COI isn't simply for measuring philanthropic programs. As our world leaders wrestle with how best to invest in the future, the outcome of each path are often unclear. When faced with a task whose consequences are seemingly unpredictable, wouldn't it be helpful to know beforehand the cost of inaction? Imagine the time, money and manpower that could be saved by working in such a way.

And although I'm extremely proud that the FXB-Village model has been validated in COI, the impact of action does not stop at the village limits. Just as hunger and disease can create far-reaching unrest, sustainable interventions create results that extend beyond all borders. Humanitarian aid is not about charity; it's a vital investment to ensure peace and stability. And even -- or perhaps especially -- in these difficult times, it is one of the smartest economic choices we can make.