Is There Really Only One Health SDG?

By Natalie Africa, Director for Private Sector Engagement, Every Woman Every Child, UN Foundation

Is There Really Only One Health SDG?

Many in the global health community were initially dismayed at the realization that there was only one goal devoted to health in the proposed Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “We had 3 out of 8 goals in the MDGs,” went the collective grumble, “health risks being marginalized in the SDGs.”

The Business and Health Action Group for Post-2015, a loose network of companies convened since October 2014 by the UN Foundation together with the Global Business Coalition for Health and the Global Health Council, decided to reflect on this reaction. Was Health really being marginalized, relegated to one mere goal out of 17 after its dominant position in the MDGs? What impact would this have on global health outcomes?

Representatives from Pfizer and GSK, two members of the Business and Health Action Group, spear-headed a collective analysis. The result was the production of a paper entitled: The Central Role of Health in the Post-2015 SDGs. The paper posits that in fact, contrary to being marginalized, health can actually be more present, more integral and more influential in the SDGs. The reason is that health, the most emotive and personal of all the SDGs, is fundamentally-cross cutting; both an end in itself and an enabler of sustainable development. In effect, health is a contributor to development and a beneficiary of results achieved across the other SDGs. As such, the paper calls on the private sector from across the wide realm of health and non-health related sectors to marshal its innovative capabilities, drive sustainable economic growth and be part of the collective solution to achieve the SDGs.

The paper highlights the central role of health in each of the 17 SDGs, backing up each example with factual or statistical data. For example, Goal 1 aims to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. It goes without saying that poor health will reduce an individual’s ability to work and generate income. At the same time, families are forced into poverty every day from catastrophic health costs and unaffordable health care. Moving onto Goal 2: nutrition is one of the most important game changers when it comes to health. Close to 850 million people worldwide still suffer from chronic hunger while malnutrition and unhealthy food consumption add to the global disease burden and to stunting. A discussion on health is incomplete without referring to nutrition. Goal 5’s objective is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Gender plays a significant role in the health of individuals, families and communities. As the main care givers and health decision makers in family units and communities, women who are not empowered are unable to make informed and appropriate decisions about their own and their families’ health.

Goal 7 talks about access to affordable, sustainable and modern energy. Many health facilities in developing countries are unable to deliver effective health services due to a lack of energy to power basic infrastructure, medical equipment and store critical medicines and vaccines. In 2010 some 2.6 billion people lacked access to clean cooking facilities, leading to household indoor pollution, the cause of 4.3 million premature deaths a year, and 50% of deaths of children under five.

High carbon emissions (Goal 13) affect the 60% of the earth’s population who work outside and experience heat stress and increased temperatures; while unsustainable production and consumption patterns (Goal 12) mean that humans are exposed to harmful chemicals and wastes that have a direct impact on health, including through the marine environment (Goal 14).

The paper was presented at the UN in April at a well-attended event attended by member states, private sector leaders, UN agencies and NGOs. Chris Gray, Senior Director for Corporate Responsibility at Pfizer indicated that many companies, including Pfizer, are adapting their metrics beyond revenue and outputs to assess non-financial impact. This will have a tremendous impact on health outcomes, particularly as other companies follow suit. The paper’s mean thesis however is that achieving impact in health requires concerted action from players across the social and economic spectrum, and that impacts in health will positively affect every other SDG. Simply put, to ensure healthy lives, as stipulated in SDG 3, we need all the SDGs to succeed, while without healthy lives, there is no sustainable development.

To view the paper and accompanying infographic click here.

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