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Challenges to Achieving SDG 3

We asked a global panel of experts, based in Africa, America, and Asia, what they thought the key challenges will be to achieving the SDGs, with a focus on healthcare.
A trolley in a hospital.

SDG 3 seeks to contribute to sustainable development by achieving good health and well-being for all the earth’s citizens. But, what is the likelihood that we can collectively achieve SDG 3? And what might stand in our way?

As you may have seen, the SDGs are measured through attainment of specific targets. Breaking them down in this way is essential in order to understand the status of each SDG at a given time, and to measure progress. However, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture which is captured in the following statement that the world’s governments signed when committing to the SDGs in 2015:

“As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

Key Challenges to Achieving SDG 3

We asked a global panel of experts, based in Africa, America, and Asia, what they thought the key challenges will be to achieving the SDGs, with a focus on healthcare.
“There are many challenges. First of all, there are worldwide reductions in funding. As I talk right now, there are reports that money for PEPFAR will be reduced. So it’s really quite difficult to talk about sustainability in healthcare when we are having these cuts. And yet expenditures are going higher and higher, they are not going down. There are still many countries in Africa whose national budget on health is more that 50% funded by donors. So how does such a country participate in determining sustainability of healthcare?”
“It’s important that health people take seriously their advocacy role to get the other SDGs to think of people’s health, and also they need to recognise that they do not have all the answers to improving people’s health… usually the determinants are beyond the control of health staff. The problem is not to have the body of a person who is malnourished and fixing that body and sending that person back to where he comes from after six weeks. The issue is why is that person malnourished in the first place. Malnutrition is the outcome of mis-development, we’ve done development wrong and the result is that some families cannot feed their kids.”

Defining SDGs

“There is still a problem with the way sustainability is defined. There are differences in how sustainability is defined, which are bound to feed through into how those sustainable development goals are interpreted, and therefore how they are implemented, and also the indicators that are used for determining whether the goal has been achieved. Ensuring the sustainability of one place, one location, one country, might undermine the sustainability of other places, by the way in which that sustainability is ensured or arrived at, so I think that’s why countries would need to work internationally, in achieving the SDGs.”


“When considering the SDGs it’s more important to consider our economic indicators. So if we are putting SDGs as a priority and yet we still have Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an economic goal we’re not going to succeed. We need to put into our economic indicator: equity, environmental sustainability, clean air, clean water. These are part of the SDGs but if we have the wrong economic drivers we’re never going to meet the SDGs. I know Bhutan has done this; they have an index on happiness that incorporates biodiversity, equity, sustainable health, and so if any policy doesn’t meet all of the criteria it doesn’t go forward. So I think we need to change our economic goals and that’s the only way we really get after the SDGs. The former acting Surgeon General of the United States said that ‘the U.S.A. does not have a healthcare system, we have a sick care system’. His point was a healthcare system means safe routes to school, clean air, clean water, cities that are designed to promote physical fitness and mental health. That’s where we need to understand health in its fully integrated way and not just be a sick care system with hospitals and clinics, but really design a healthy society.

5 Key Challenges to Achieving SDG 3

Our global experts picked up on some common themes:

  1. The 17 SDGs are interconnected. They must be tackled together and not considered one by one. So SDG 3 cannot be achieved without considering the other goals.
  2. We must address the core determinants of health and well-being, including socio-economic determinants, such as education, income and gender.
  3. Investing in healthcare must be a priority and adequate funding secured if we want to make a long term impact.
  4. We need to strive not just to tackle disease but to achieve a healthy society for everyone.
  5. We need to work together as an international community to achieve the SDGs.

Now, let’s delve a little deeper into the SDG 3 in order to consider what is required to achieve the health targets. We will start by looking at nutrition and the importance of food as the first medicine.

  • What do you think are the major challenges to achieving SDG 3?
  • Do you agree with our experts?
  • Did they miss anything?
© Trinity College Dublin
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