Health – a human right

A patient room in the health centre in Rubona, Rwanda

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing. Such a standard of living includes sufficient and good food, clothing, housing, medical care and the necessary social services.

Health is not, however, simply a personal matter. It concerns the whole of society and is a prerequisite for social and economic development. Many people become poor through illness and, by the same token, the poor face a particularly high risk of falling ill. The progress we make in lifting people out of poverty is therefore a key factor driving improvements in the health situation of people in developing countries.

Human right to health

The human right "of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" is laid down in Article 12 of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). So far, however, it has not been realised in full.

Even though the situation has improved enormously in recent decades, it remains unacceptable. Every day nearly 15,000 children die before they reach the age of five – most of them from diseases that could be prevented or treated. More than 800 girls and women die every day from problems arising in pregnancy or birth because, in their countries, no adequate medical care is available to them.

A child in Vieng Phouka, Laos, fills water in a bottle.

AIDS continues to claim very many lives (around 940,000 in 2017). And many millions of people have to live in insanitary conditions that cause disease. Figures for 2015 show that some 844 million people had no access to safe drinking water, and around 2.3 billion people had to live without even basic sanitation.

These are conditions that violate the human right to health. For the developing countries concerned, the situation amounts to a humanitarian disaster – and for the rest of humankind, a great moral challenge.

Universal health coverage

Table with surgical instruments

The human right to health can only be realised if universal health coverage (UHC) is achieved. This would ensure that everyone has access to health information, to basic health services and to effective, high-quality and affordable medicines and vaccines.

The imperative of achieving universal coverage is enshrined in Goal 3 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and is central to the work of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in the field of health policy.

Health in the 2030 Agenda

Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

In committing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, the international community expressed its will to tackle global challenges through joint action. The third sustainability goal is to "ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages." It is fleshed out in thirteen specific targets.

The 2030 targets that primarily guide Germany’s development cooperation efforts are to:

  • reduce maternal mortality (SDG 3.1);
  • end preventable deaths of newborns and children (SDG 3.2);
  • end epidemics including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and combat other communicable diseases (SDG 3.3);
  • ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services (SDG 3.7);
  • achieve universal health coverage (SDG 3.8).

The text of the 2030 Agenda explicitly emphasises the interlinkages between the different aspects of life covered. Cross-sectoral action is, therefore, a key principle of German development policy.

German activities

Three laboratory technicians work in a medical laboratory with samples in a sterile workbench.

In seeking to achieve the goal of universal health coverage, the focus of Germany’s development policy is on four priority issues: strengthening health systems, reducing maternal and infant mortality, combatting HIV/AIDS, and preventing infectious diseases and epidemics. The regional priority is partner countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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