Sustainable Development Goals 1 to 3: Poverty, Hunger, and Health


On current trends, most countries will fall short of meeting many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by their 2030 deadline. These global objectives were selected to spur improvement in areas ranging from subsistence to sustainability to stability and beyond. GrantStation has already given an overview of the initiative, and moving forward will be spotlighting the individual goals, measuring their progress, discussing obstacles to their enactment, and assessing what the nonprofit community is doing around the issues.

There are seventeen SDGs, and these are arranged around five pillars: people, prosperity, planet, peace, and partnerships. SDGs one, two, and three, which we’ll focus on today, are 1) no poverty, 2) zero hunger, and 3) good health/well-being. Nonprofit leaders are already well aware of the interconnectedness of the work their organizations do. Millions of the world’s impoverished, hungry, and health challenged, for example, live in conflict zones. Therefore organizations working toward peace are also working toward solutions for SDGs one through three, even if those particular goals appear nowhere in the groups' mission statements.

There have been many criticisms of the SDGs. Some detractors have complained of vagueness, but it's difficult to see why. If the SDGs are goals, the five broad categories are beneficiaries and benefits. Poverty, zero hunger, and good health/well-being are aimed at building a better existence for people. Goals fourteen and fifteen—life below water, and life on land—are aimed at an improved ecosystem for the planet, and so on. If one were inclined to go a step further, one could add to the seventeen specific goals and five broad categories a single overarching imperative: human progress. The SDG framework is not vague, but rather holistic.


The UN has set its benchmark for extreme poverty at the equivalent of $1.25 per day. But money doesn't have equal purchasing power everywhere. In Kazakhstan, a child living on a dollar a day has a 10% risk of being underweight, while a child living on a dollar a day in India faces a nearly 60% risk. A Kazakh child faces a mortality rate before their first birthday of about 40 per 1000, while a child living on a dollar a day in Niger faces a mortality risk of nearly 160 per 1000. For these reasons and others, there is disagreement over what, exactly, constitutes poverty.

Using the UN's extreme poverty rate means fewer than a billion people fall below that line, but if the poverty rate were set at $5.00, the number would jump by 4.3 billion, or more than half of humanity. The $5.00 figure isn't random. Some studies suggest that in order for people to meet their basic needs and reach a normal life expectancy as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, $5.00 per day is the figure that needs to be attained.

In addition, some critics suggest that the UN is trying to focus attention on boosting economic opportunity for the impoverished while avoiding discussing whether wealthy people simply have too much. Elon Musk is worth about $180 billion, which at a profligate spending rate of, say, $180 million a year, is enough wealth to live 1,000 years. Along with that enormous sum comes enough political power to match that of—let’s make a symmetrical guess here—1,000 non-wealthy people. If that guess strikes you as way too conservative, your reaction suggests the scale of the problem. Some say the UN has avoided such basic questions in its poverty goals.

But even at the benchmark of $1.25 per day, the entities that have derided the UN's hunger and poverty goals include The Economist and The Heritage Foundation. Brett D. Schafer, in an editorial for the latter, wrote that individual freedom is the key to achieving progress: “There is a role for governments, and the U.N., but the drive and ambition of people in a free environment are the crux of development.” There are two problems with that rather widespread belief: Scores of life-changing developments—the internet, genome research, speech recognition, closed captioning, interstate highways, and space flight are just a handful of examples—have been conceived, launched, and brought into being by government. And, in times of disaster, it is mobilizations of the type initiated by government and large aid organizations that result in the most immediate and effective relief.

Change on a global scale initiated by “people in a free environment” represents merely an evidence-free aspiration. On a long enough timeline (probably centuries) it might even turn out to be true. But those who believe in science and evidence understand that humanity is already mid-emergency, in large part because there has been no global agreement or plan. This is exactly why some critics of the SDGs say not that they reach too far, but that they don’t reach far enough. What’s clear, however, is that intervention is needed now. The UN believes—and many nonprofit leaders agree—that counting on individual largesse is inadequate to the challenges humanity faces.


According to UN figures, in 2020 between 720 million and 811 million people worldwide suffered from hunger, and 2.4 billion people—more than 30% of the world’s population—lacked regular access to adequate food. Almost 150 million children under 5 years of age—22% of the global total—were suffering from stunting, or low height for their age. From 2019 to 2022, the number of hungry people grew by up to 150 million. The causes of these recent increases are the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating climate change, and the war in Ukraine.

There are thousands of hunger-focused aid organizations ranging from community nonprofits to the World Food Programme, which has offices in eighty countries. The reduction of poverty would radically shift the current hunger paradigm, but the UN is also targeting the supply side of the equation by urging countries to boost the agricultural productivity of local food producers, promote sustainable production, maintain seed diversity, increase investment in rural infrastructure, and prevent or correct trade restrictions, among other measures.

While nonprofits greatly help to alleviate hunger, there are limits to what is achievable without a coordinated approach to the issue. The nonprofit group Move for Hunger estimates that in 2020 more than one in six U.S. citizens sought food aid. Food insecurity is still above pre-pandemic levels, yet government food assistance is being scaled back. As this occurs, approximately forty million Americans are scrambling to find new ways to eat, with nonprofits attempting to assist them even as food prices rise.

Meanwhile, war rages in Ukraine. The Russian invasion disrupted food supplies and turbocharged inflation, plus a fertilizer shortage now looms. The war tends to be looked upon mainly as a geopolitical issue, but taking a wider view reveals it as an example of how costly conflict is to the world at large. And still more conflict may be in the offing. Even if the Ukraine-Russia war ends soon, U.S. conflict with China seems to be next on the cards. The current war should serve as a reminder that the chances of mitigating hunger, inequality, global warming, and a host of other problems fade when nations fight.


COVID-19 is a theme that pervades the SDGs. It made the program’s already difficult 2030 deadline nearly impossible to achieve. As with poverty and hunger, it was a massive setback to SDG three, focused on good health/well-being. Using the metric of excess mortality, which is considered by epidemiologists to be a reliable method for tracking deaths, up to 15 million people died due to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. The virus is still circulating and remains a foe that the UN is tackling. In addition to working to lessen COVID-19 deaths, a few of the UN’s other health goals are to lower infant mortality and deaths during childbirth; combat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases; and achieve universal health coverage.

Health and poverty intersect in numerous ways. People in poverty are at increased risk of adverse health effects from obesity, smoking, substance use, and chronic stress. The U.S. is the only developed country without universal health coverage. In addition, U.S. citizens pay higher healthcare costs than in comparable nations, but for far worse health outcomes. However, the most crucial work needs to be done in developing countries such Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in Africa, where citizens in nine nations suffer life expectancy of fewer than sixty years.

For nonprofits working on health in the U.S., advocacy for true universal health coverage is difficult because one of the two political parties is opposed to government intervention. But a tipping point likely looms, because the deficiencies of the U.S. system can’t be obscured by rhetoric for much longer. The average daily cost of a hospital stay runs into the thousands of dollars. With six of ten Americans lacking even $500 in savings, sickness or injury is often financially ruinous. 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. are nonprofit, and that fact combined with the sheer number of health focused foundations and charities makes good health an SDG in which our sector has a large stake—and influence.

Solutions that help everyone

Looking at the first three SDGs, we see how each cascades onto the next. Issues are interlinked. COVID-19 is more than a virus. Russia against Ukraine is more than war. The SDGs ask humanity to consider a different modus operandi, to understand that temporary gains for a few often result in larger losses for the rest of us. The theory of self-interest as the engine of progress may not need to change, but the understanding of what is actually in our self-interest certainly does.

Even in our era of climate breakdown, rainforest destruction, increasing toxicity in the ecosystem, vast inequality, and other harmful effects caused by the status quo, the Holy Grail of an unregulated private sector remains a suicidal pursuit for many of the most powerful entities in the world. Any hint of ceding authority—or even the mere power of suggestion—to an international body is enough to galvanize political opposition. Improved lives and a healthier planet would seem to conflict with profitmaking, but they don’t have to, which is doubtless why one of the UN’s SDGs is economic growth.

Bringing economic elites aboard the SDG program is a tricky proposition, but without a partnership, failure is guaranteed. It’s important to make explicit that, in the same way the goals are interlinked, the benefits from solutions accrue to everyone. Poverty, for example, is one of the drivers of migration. Less poverty will lead to more resilient local communities, better worker productivity, and heightened political stability. These need to be considered forms of profit on each society’s ledger, just as much as annual earnings. As we continue through the other SDGs in GrantStation’s blog, the many links between the issues, as well as the shared benefits of the solutions, will become even clearer.

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