Part 2: Issues in Sustainable Development

To the Instructor 

The theme of this Block is how human well-being, in association with environmental health, is central to sustainable development. 

This naturally raises the questions “what is human well-being?” and “how do we measure it?”  The issues included here are included in the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), which identifies income, health, and educational attainment as primary measures of a person’s capability to live a worthwhile life. The issues identified in the HDI are however only the starting point for understanding what it means to fully meet basic human needs.

Throughout this issue block, bring local concerns to the classroom by asking for student perceptions of poverty, access to education, and health care in their communities. Also bring in news articles and/or national statistics (if available and reliable) to support the classroom discussions.


There are many reasons why people are poor. Usually it is a combination of factors that sustain poverty. In this module these factors are examined. The Sustainability Strategies give some examples of approaches that are being used to reduce poverty. In this module, the ultimate objective is to develop students’ ability to look at situations of poverty, identify which factors (issues) are the primary poverty drivers, and discuss strategies to change the effect the drivers are having on the people involved.

To introduce the discussions, we suggest that you call on students to read the Voices of the Poor quotations out-loud.  

Poverty Assignment Questions

  1. Poverty: Explain why “low income” does not fully capture the meaning of poverty. What is meant by the term “human poverty”? What is the Human Development Index?

    • (from Poverty Definitions) We think of poverty as a measure of human deprivation; access to the necessities of life is not directly associated with income. Human poverty is the deprivation of the capabilities that allow a person lead a decent life, such as health, education, and access to infrastructure.
    • (from HDR 1990) The Human Development Index is a measurement that combines life expectancy, literacy, and income. It is often contrasted to per capita GDP when studying a country’s development over time or differences between countries.
  2. Poverty: The Millennium Development Goals were agreed at the United Nations Millennium Summit of September 2000. The targets are to be achieved by 2015, with reductions referring to 1990 levels. The goals provide a framework for international action and “embody the aspiration for human betterment.” (MDG in Africa) The first Millennium Development Goal concerns poverty reduction. Characterize the extent of poverty in the Sub-Saharan region.

    • (from MDG in Africa) Almost half of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lives below the $1/day international poverty line. This is related to an overall lack of economic growth in the region and high inequality, and results in deprivation with under-nourishment affecting more than one quarter of the population, including children.

  3. Interconnections: Poverty & Ecosystems: Why are the poor most affected by ecosystem degradation?

    • (from Exploring the Links) Poor households depend directly on ecosystem services such as harvesting food and fuel from forests and drinking untreated water.


Infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS, sanitation, malnutrition, and lack of access to adequate health care are the major health care challenges in Africa. In this module it is important that students not only understand the challenges and their scale, but also see how the situation can be improved. The Sustainability Strategies provide two examples.

Health Assignment Questions

  1. Health: Characterize the prevalence of HIV in Africa.

    • (from MDG in Africa) HIV prevalence is estimated as 9% throughout the region. Seven countries have prevalence rates above 25%. Teenage girls are at highest risk. Among all groups, there is a concerning lack of knowledge about the virus and how it is transmitted.

  2. Health: In what areas do public health systems need improvement in order to better serve the most needy?

    • (from Health and the Millennium Development Goals) Preventing loss of health care workers to AIDS and out-migration, effective financing strategy that combines insurance and user fees, more resources and better procurement systems for drugs, better tracking and information systems.


Barriers to the provision of education are some of the most pressing problems in Africa. In this module the reasons for such barriers are explored. After completing this module students should understand why the barriers exist and know how some of the barriers can be overcome.

Education Assignment Questions

  1. Education: What are some reasons that children are unable to attend school?

    • (from Free and Compulsory Education for All) Children may be needed to work at home or outside the home to support their family. Families may not be able to pay school fees or buy uniforms. School quality may be so poor—lack of materials, untrained teachers—that parents see no value in sending their children to school. Cultural factors and fears for safety may discourage parents from sending daughters to school. Other possibilities not addressed in the readings: in areas of conflict the schools may be disrupted or non-existent; migrant, refugee and nomadic families would not be in one location to enroll their children in school; orphans frequently have no one to help them with schooling; those in the population affected by HIV/AIDS have additional needs.

  2. Education: Find three reasons why increasing educational attainment for girls is considered particularly important.

    • (from Power of Girls Education) Possibilities include later marriage leading to lower population growth, increasing the investment in their own children’s health and education, giving women a greater voice in society, slowing spread of AIDS among future mothers.

Dimensions of Human Well-being Discussion Questions

  1. Are health, poverty, and education the three essential descriptors of human well-being? What are other aspects would you include if you were designing a human development index?
  2. Which groups do you think of as bearing the most responsibility for human development? Parents and family? Local community groups? The government? The global community? What can each of these players contribute?
  3. Consider the following quotation from the 2005 Human Development Report: “income is a means, not an end.” How does a broader understanding of human well-being change the way we approach the challenge of sustainable development?

*Local topics you can include in the discussion:

    • neighborhoods or regions identified with high poverty as seen in per capita changes over time as revealed by national statistics
    • student perceptions of the cultural markers of poverty such as lack of clothes and inability to properly celebrate weddings and funerals
    • the quality of primary education
    • the availability and cost of health care services