A Healthier Global Health Agenda

LONDON – On September 25, world leaders will meet in New York at a special session of the United Nations to chart a path to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Described as a “generational opportunity,” the potential is indeed great. But indications so far suggest that optimal health goals could be derailed.

The SDGs will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted in 2000 and expire in 2015. The MDGs have proved instrumental in galvanizing political will and focusing financial resources on a limited set of basic needs in low- and middle-income countries. The lives of millions of people, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have been improved.

The SDG framework has been the subject of a year of widespread consultation, lobbying, and debate. Consensus is emerging in a few areas: the new goals should address the unfinished MDGs; they should include not only poverty, but also planetary limits, including climate change; and they should be universal in scope, addressing challenges such as widening inequality in poor and rich countries alike.

A universal health goal also makes a lot of sense. Some conditions, such as neglected tropical diseases, are unique to developing countries, while others, like AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal mortality, affect poor countries disproportionately. But, for the most part, a universal set of maladies has emerged over the past decade, accounting for the vast bulk of ill health and preventable death in all regions of the world. Unfortunately, the proposed health agenda seems to ignore this trend.