At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September, the U.N. officially launched the new global Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals and 169 associated targets are the result of 193 countries standing together and making a plan for a healthier, more prosperous world.
The plan lays out some very lofty goals — they cover health, education, the environment, economic growth and more. Some say it’s impossible to achieve them all.
And yes, the magnitude of what we as a global community are proposing is daunting. We’ll need to make structural changes in governance, financing, and implementation. We’ll need the fields of global development, research, and finance to embrace a new way of looking at the world — of thinking about environmental threats and disease prevention together, for example, instead of as unrelated issues. And we’ll need new funding schemes to accommodate this more integrated approach.
We want to accomplish all of this by 2030.
So yes, the SDGs are ambitious. And some key issues are conspicuously missing from the targets (more on that in a moment).
But I’m optimistic. Because in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals seemed impossible, too. And while we didn’t achieve them all, some countries saw truly astounding results. Globally, we’ve made staggering progress in improving maternal health, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV — progress we may otherwise never have made so quickly.
Now we’re approaching the International Conference on Family Planning in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, where the global community will gather next week to share best practices, celebrate successes, and plan the future of global family planning. This field happens to affect each of the SDGs in one way or another. So as we prepare for this, let’s consider what works and what’s missing in the SDGs:
Focus on universal health coverage
SDG 3 reads: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” The only way to achieve this is by making health care available to all 7 billion of us. And access to family planning and other primary health care is an indispensable part of that, as target 3.7 spells out.
However, the health workforce is missing.
Health workers are the very people — in fact, the only people — who can make universal access to health care a reality. Yet today there is a global shortage of 7.2 million doctors, nurses and midwives, according to the World Health Organization. The SDGs include only one vague mention of the health workforce in target 3c, which is not a specific or measurable target.
This is not enough. We know from experience that if we can’t measure our progress toward a goal, we’re unlikely to make it a priority, much less achieve it. We must make health workers and access to them integral to our plan for 2030.
Social protection for the world’s most vulnerable
I have spent a lifetime in the field of global health and development. As the politics and approaches have changed over the decades, I have sometimes asked myself: “What has happened to our compassion? What has happened to the idea that those who are a little better off should help those who are in need?”
SDG 1 answers these questions. It is perhaps the loftiest — and worthiest — goal we as a global community could ever aspire to: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
But what’s missing? Health care as a human right.
Access to a health worker should be a right for every individual, no matter where you live or how much money you have. Emphasizing this through the SDGs could introduce a powerful change to the way we approach health care, and transform it from a commodity into a human right.
Urbanization and the private sector
In 1960, about 34 percent of the global population lived in urban areas. Now it’s more than half. SDG 11 responds to this trend: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
By focusing on urban areas, and particularly the urban poor, we can reach huge swathes of the population and improve health and wellbeing for more people than ever. And our private-sector partners are ready to play a huge role in these efforts.
For instance, imagine what big pharmaceutical corporations, or Coca-Cola, or FedEx — with their vast expertise in logistics and delivering products to exactly the right places at the right times — could contribute to the issues of, say, contraceptive stockouts or medicine shortages. Their expertise could stock every corner of this world with the products people need, when they need them.
The SDG agenda mentions the private sector several times, but is unfortunately vague, offering no measurable targets that address exactly how corporations can help.
There’s a misconception that the private sector holds the answers to all of global development’s problems, that it could eliminate the need for aid altogether if only we could tap into its vast budgets and expertise. The private sector’s resources are vast, but we must forge meaningful partnerships and maintain a strong sense of social accountability if we’re to work together effectively.
To make such relationships work, we must have shared values. For example, IntraHealth International collaborates with many for-profit corporations, including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck and Medtronic. When we combine our expertise with theirs, the ultimate beneficiaries are the communities that, together, we can help more effectively than ever.
The will to make meaningful progress
Finishing what we started with the MDGs will come down to how we go about achieving these new global objectives.
We have the will. Let’s focus on the how. And what better place to start than with family planning, an area of health care whose far-reaching effects will influence our progress toward each of the SDGs? We’ll be joining thousands of advocates and experts at the ICFP to dig further into these issues.
And as we work, let’s not focus on our differences across cultures, but on the universal experiences — such as our lifelong need for access to health care — that can bring us together to achieve our goals for ourselves, our children, and future generations.