A green background with SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being in text, with a heartbeat icon in white.

SDG 3 – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

“At present, only about a half of the world’s people have access to healthcare without impoverishment. This needs to improve dramatically.”

- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, newly elected Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) starting 1st July 2017.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, from Ethiopia, is the first African to hold the position of Director General, or head, of the WHO. He lays out the stark reality of healthcare in our world today. This week we are exploring SDG 3 which is a proposed response to the challenges of achieving healthcare for all. We will see how health is fundamental to human development and underlies many of our efforts toward achieving sustainable development.

SDG 3 seeks to ensure health and well-being for all, at every stage of life.

The goal addresses all major health priorities including: reproductive, maternal, and child health; communicable, non-communicable, and environmental diseases; universal health coverage; and access for all to safe, effective, quality and affordable medicines and vaccines. It also calls for more research and development, increased health financing, and strengthened capacity of all countries in health risk reduction and management.

What is health?

So, how do we think about health and ensuring good health in our society and our world? Is it just about life expectancy or quantity of life? Does your thinking immediately go to physical illness and disease? What about quality of life? What about mental health and broader well-being?

The WHO defines health (since 1948) as:

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

So, what would a healthier world look like? This SDG sets targets to reduce global maternal and child mortality, end the epidemics of AIDS, TB, and malaria, reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases, improve environmental health, and more.

Take a look at the wide range of SDG 3 targets by downloading this document.

Measuring health

Global organisations, such as the WHO and the World Bank, are constantly tracking our progress against health goals by using indicators such as the prevalence and incidence of a disease and mortality.

  • Prevalence (or morbidity) refers to the number of individuals who have a disease, like HIV or diabetes, at a particular point in time.
  • Incidence is the number of new cases within a time period, for example a year.
  • Mortality refers to the number of deaths in a population.

Health indicators like these help us to measure our progress in tackling specific health challenges, and to understand how close we are to the overall goal of ensuring health and well-being for all.

The relationship between development and health

Health and development are fundamentally linked. One of the key indicators we can consider is life expectancy in a population. Global life expectancy has increased from 52 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2015. When we examine the relationship between income and life expectancy, over time we see that increased income per capita is strongly associated with increased life expectancy. As a general rule, there are no very low-income countries in the world with a very high life expectancy, and there are no high-income countries with a very low life expectancy.

A map of the world highlighting income and health. It shows that most low-income countries in the world have a low life expectancy compared with high-income countries. Based on a free chart from www.gapminder.org. Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0. (Click to expand)

Economic development is essentially linked to our longevity. However, there is a lot of variation among middle-income countries, suggesting that many factors including the distribution of wealth within a country can have a large impact on longevity among different groups. Watch Hans Rosling’s video to see this important relationship between income and life expectancy mapped out.

When we talk about development we often consider economic development. We determine the value of an economy by measuring Gross Domestic Product or GDP. However, some countries have started to think about the health of their country in more than just economic terms. They have started to include national measures of well-being alongside GDP. For example, consider Bhutan which introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

This measure was introduced in response to the following critique:

“GDP…does not distinguish between those activities that increase a nation’s wealth and those that deplete its natural resources or result in poor health or widening social inequalities.”

Bhutan introduced and popularised the concept of measuring GNH so that a country would have a framework to pursue equitable socio-economic development “integrated with environmental conservation, cultural promotion and good governance”.

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site located in upper Paro valley in Bhutan Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site located in the upper Paro valley in Bhutan © Shutterstock/ultramansk

This week we will see how health is a complex and all-encompassing concept that intertwines with many other SDGs, and relates closely to our ultimate development objective: to ensure that people all around the world have better lives. Next, let’s consider the challenges to achieving a complex goal like SDG 3.


Take a look at this map of life expectancy around the world from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation.

  • Select one country and comment below on what development challenges or strengths you think could have affected its life expectancy.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Achieving Sustainable Development

Trinity College Dublin