Pathways to achieving SDG 3


The world is simultaneously facing both a climate crisis and the harsh reality of global poverty, both of which require urgent action from all of us to resolve. However, pursuing one goal — either ameliorating global poverty or combatting climate change — can often involve exacerbating the other. For example, the Global South pursuing the fossil-fuel based industrialisation and development paradigm of the Global North would cause devastating global warming. The inverse can also be true, wherein aggressive climate change mitigation policies can stifle the growth of low-income countries and deprive their governments of the tools necessary to alleviate their citizens from the deprivations of poverty. Given the urgency and extreme consequences of both issues for sentient wellbeing, compromising on either the planet or human development is fundamentally undesirable.


This dilemma has created the impetus for the sustainable development movement, defined by the 1987 Brundtland Commission as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Critically, this movement addresses the intertemporal dynamics of human development and climate change, which is often characterised by a tradeoff between meeting the present development needs of the current generation and mitigating the future ecological and sentient damages of anthropogenic climate change. The sustainable development movement has culminated in the establishment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes 17 goals to be achieved by 2030 that represent ambitious targets for holistic global improvements in development, while aiming to be compatible with the current ecological crisis. 

Overcoming this intertemporal challenge — and hence achieving sustainable development — represents a substantial task that requires intelligent policy and action at all levels of society. Meeting the global and systemic needs posed by the SDGs is unlikely to be achieved by a single hero or actor, purely by their nature as ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems are complex and multifaceted issues with no simple solutions, thus necessitating substantial resources, time, commitment, and collaboration from a range of stakeholders. This can and should include intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, national governments, the private sector, civil society, communities, and individuals. Not only do these crises necessitate this level of collaboration (even if some approaches place disproportionate emphasis on particular stakeholders), but the collaboration itself is an opportunity to mobilise whole-of-society responses towards unified goals, thus building solidarity and the collective infrastructure to face other similarly global problems.


As with any idea, it’s important to engage critically with sustainable development to assess its merits and improve or alter its scope, application, and framing accordingly. 

Given the simple and broadly applicable nature of SD, a degree of ambiguity can result wherein SD and its composite terms have a variety of competing definitions and framings. Failing to agree on a coherent and consistent definition of a framework has practical implications in contexts such as the thresholds for what constitutes a “sustainable” environment or which metrics should be employed to evaluate “development” progress. 

Should a local council build a community centre, homeless shelter, family planning clinic, or preserve the existing environment on a block of land? Should a low-income country pursue manufacturing-led industrial policy which has been demonstrably effective even though it results in greater emissions?

However, it is nonetheless important to create space for diverse and critical perspectives with the understanding that development is not a “one size fits all” phenomenon and solutions need to be contextually specific and culturally appropriate. SD doesn’t necessarily capture this need in its mainstream application, as many of its core tenets are rooted in narrow eurocentrism, such as the dichotomisation of society and nature, which contrasts with cultures that adopt a more integrated view. This has led to the creation of alternative frameworks such as ‘buen vivir’ in Latin America and greater pushes to improve the inclusivity of SD. 

Beyond the above concerns, SD has been critiqued for being limited on the basis that it doesn’t engage with the notion that a more fundamental disruption to the economy may ultimately be necessary. This also extends to the lack of embeddedness of structural critiques made by postcolonial and feminist thinkers regarding power dynamics or the focus on agency and individual freedoms made by Amartya Sen. While attempts have been made to incorporate these views within SD, it is apparent that further work is required to refine SD. Moreover, it is critical to recognise that SD is not an exhaustive framework, which necessitates an approach whereby SD is used in conjunction with structural considerations alongside varying approaches and lenses.

There are also some more practical concerns within SD that warrant further consideration. For example, SD doesn’t address how to prioritise goals when contradictions emerge. This necessitates broader social conversation about how to make this prioritisation in either a general or contextual basis. Many scenarios will result in some objectives being hampered or neglected by pursuing others. Should a local council build a community centre, homeless shelter, family planning clinic, or preserve the existing environment on a block of land? Should a low-income country pursue manufacturing-led industrial policy which has been demonstrably effective even though it results in greater emissions? These tangible concerns among others have been responded to by either developing heuristics and principles such as ‘polluter-pays’ and the ‘precautionary principles’ or through building agreement within specific contexts. The latter approach seeks to build best practice on a per-issue basis such that solutions are contextually appropriate.

Given these issues and various responses to them, it’s important that SD is ultimately seen as a discourse wherein further conversations about framing, implementation, and competing perspectives can be found.


Source: Our World in Data, Healthcare Access and Quality Index, 2015
Source: Our World in Data, Death rates from air pollution, World, 1990 to 2017

In order to further explore the SDGs and evaluate progress towards them, SDG 3 (Good health and wellbeing) will be analysed given that it is a relevant objective for Strive as an organisation, as well as students in the public health space. SDG 3 aims to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, involving 13 ambitious health-related targets, and is measured using 28 indicators. These targets range from reducing maternal and child mortality, fighting communicable and non-communicable disease, to preventing and treating substance abuse. These represent broad and effective goals that target a range of health outcomes, including requirements that all countries must pass to ensure that equitable and just progress is achieved. 

Inclusive institutions are progenitors of development, climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on global health, and the equitable nature of the targets makes them impossible to achieve without resolving inequities.

Tracking the achievement of this goal is a monumental task itself, requiring comprehensive and consistent data collection across every single country. Many of the indicators have data available for them, but there are a few without any high-quality data sources, and many regions of the world — such as sub-saharan Africa — consistently lack high-quality data for most indicators. This is a reflection of ongoing data inequality issues that impede the ability to evaluate and create targeted development initiatives. Within the purview of these limitations, steady progress has been made across most targets before 2020, such as maternal and infant mortality, life expectancy, sanitation, malaria, as well as HIV/AIDS reduction. However, much more progress is required to reach the targets by 2030. The need for greater progress has been magnified by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has directly created additional health problems. This then creates downstream health effects by reallocating health resources to combating a pandemic, while exacerbating substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence due to the need for lockdowns and the ensuing economic recession. The combination of these factors alongside the disruption of medical supply chains has been a devastating blow to the achievement of SDG 3 amongst others, which requires immediate and substantial long-term action to alleviate and propel the global community towards greater public health. If you would like to further investigate SDG 3 as well as progress towards the other 16 SDGs, Our World In Data has a comprehensive and open-source SDG tracker that uses high-quality data to evaluate progress towards each goal.

It is also worth emphasising that each goal has not been designed as a set of discrete objectives, and that there are important interrelations and causal chains between SDGs, such that there are co-benefits to achieving any particular goal as well as to encourage holistic development. This can be seen in the context of SDG 3, where achieving goals such as eliminating poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), and clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) result in greater health outcomes. This is a two-way causal link given that these goals themselves improve as greater health outcomes are achieved. Interrelations extend beyond bi-directional causality, as goals such as climate action (SDG 13), reducing inequality (SDG 10), gender equity (SDG 5), and strong institutions (SDG 16), serve as prerequisite foundations for meaningful health outcomes to be achieved. This is because inclusive institutions are progenitors of development, climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on global health, and the equitable nature of the targets makes them impossible to achieve without resolving inequities. This underscores the importance of an approach that targets all goals simultaneously, so as to achieve the desired metrics, which are ultimately reflective of lived human experiences that need to be improved in a multidimensional way. 

How can we achieve SDG 3?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of public health and the need for global collaboration in a time where many nations and people fragment and turn insular. The next 10 years of progress towards SDG 3 will need to be characterised in the context of amending the long term damages of COVID-19, both in terms of public health and the global insulatory effects of quarantines. 

Governments and IGOs will need to focus on the disproportionate effects the pandemic has brought upon already marginalised groups and low-income countries, while reestablishing and building upon development programs that were sidelined in 2020.

The private sector also has a role to play, with the healthcare industry and adjacent sectors being of particular importance, not just to SDG 3, but to each goal. The SDG industry matrix team produced a report outlining how the healthcare and life sciences sector can contribute to each SDG, via the principles of preventative healthcare, healthcare resilience, universal health coverage, and environmental sustainability.

Civil society and activist groups are critical elements for the democratisation of SDG negotiation and policy, through having the capacity to apply pressure and bring perspective to large and powerful stakeholders. These groups are also essential to mobilise the general public to be aware of and engage with SDG implementation.

For the sake of brevity, there are many other important stakeholders that can contribute towards SDG achievement or minimise their own harm such as industry associations, individual health professionals, and community organisations. It is through these stakeholders that extensive collaboration will be required to mobilise the whole-of-society response necessary to achieve the SDGs, including SDG 3.

What can you do to achieve SDG 3?

We live multidimensional lives and our impact should reflect that. There are numerous contexts and spaces that we occupy that can be mobilised for positive social change. Below are examples of how you can use your resources, social circles, student status, political lives, and future careers to contribute positively to the achievement of the SDGs. For a more comprehensive look into the multidimensionality in our lives, I have written a previous article about making an impact in the face of climate change.

As a student:

  • Take development and sustainability electives
  • Involve yourself with student organisations that contribute towards the SDGs such as Strive, MUHI, Melbourne Microfinance Initiative, Enactus, model UN society, and many more
  • Engage in student politics and university SDG initiatives. For example, the University of Melbourne does not currently feature on The Times Education’s university SDG performance ranking and it’s incredibly important that we encourage the university to feature in these evaluative initiatives and contribute more meaningfully
  • Take your time as a student to learn and engage yourself with various facts, experiences, and perspectives in an open and empathetic way

As a professional:

  • Pursue careers that directly advocate for or contribute to the SDGs
  • Encourage your workplace to adopt more sustainability initiatives
  • Contribute to the SDGs through a side hustle or social enterprise

Using your resources:

  • Divest from fossil fuels and companies that contribute negatively to public health
  • Donate to effective organisations that are SDG oriented, and meet high standards
  • Volunteer your time for positive social causes
  • Make more socially conscious consumption decisions and live a low GHG emissions lifestyle (plant-based diet, use public transport, minimise waste, use renewable energy when possible)

As a political constituent:

  • Attend peaceful and socially responsible protests
  • Factor public health, climate change, and development into your voting decisions
  • Attend community meetings and contact your local representative to achieve SDG alignment in your community
  • Run for office on an SDG-oriented agenda

Beyond these tangible actions, it’s equally important to raise awareness and have conversations about these issues with your friends and family. Moreover, forming social groups that care about these issues will help to build a sense of community, while ensuring that your contribution is more engaging, fun, effective, and manageable. It is only with a large coalition of informed and engaged people that we can overcome global issues together and build a better future for everyone.

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