Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
Have you ever wanted to make a positive impact in the world, but not known where to start? Maybe you’ve felt overwhelmed by information. That’s why we’ve created this summary of six major global issues, and what’s being done about them.
The news is packed with statistics and updates on the challenges we face as global citizens. Sometimes it can seem as though there are too many – from climate change, to the high rate of gender inequality around the world, to many people living without access to medical care.
Where do you even start? Which issues are the most urgent? And can one person, really, truly, make that much of a contribution?
But working to alleviate global issues doesn’t have to be that confusing or stressful. There are well-established structures in place to help you see where help and resources are needed.
There are also organisations, like GVI, that can help you contribute towards sustainable, community-led volunteer and intern abroad projects that take significant strides towards resolving these problems.
Addressing the 18 global issues
The United Nations (UN) currently lists 18 “Global Issues”. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Rather, it serves as an overview of some of the major issues all global citizens should be aware of.
The UN has also set 17 goals to be achieved by 2030. These correspond with the most important issues of our time, and are known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).
There are many organisations that align their mission to these goals. For instance, all GVI’s work is guided by a commitment to the UN SDGs.
To learn more about our commitment to furthering progress on the goals set by the UN, watch our video below.
Here are six of the world’s biggest challenges, and how you can be part of the solution.
The number of hungry people in the world has increased over the last few years. One in nine people in the world go hungry each day and suffer from nutritional deficiencies as a result.
In previous years, food security has been the biggest threat to the overall health of the human population, more so than malaria, tuberculosis or HIV. And, 2020 saw the most severe increase in global food insecurity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting vulnerable households almost everywhere.
Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are going hungry – up by 10 million people in just one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.
So, what is the problem? How can it be 2021 and people are still going hungry?
The problem is not that we aren’t producing enough food, but rather that people lack access to food. Many people do not have enough money to purchase food and cannot grow their own.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), countries with the highest level of food insecurity also have the highest outward migration of refugees.
And this problem is twofold: While overall hunger has steadily decreased over the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of refugees. Refugees typically suffer the most from food insecurity.
Even though approximately 11% of the world is undernourished, about 30% of the adult population are overweight.
No country in the world had seen any kind of decrease in obesity rate. In fact, it’s rising among both children and adults. While it is tempting to think of obesity as a form of “over-nutrition”, it is actually another kind of malnutrition.
People consume pre-packed food that is low in nutrients, and high in carbs and preservatives. As a result, they increase their risk of obesity.
Another surprising fact about obesity is that, while you might expect it to only occur among higher-income groups, it actually affects people at every income level.
Nutritious food is often more expensive and, in some areas, access to healthy foods is restricted or even non-existent. When food prices rise, lower-income communities have no choice but to choose prepackaged, high-carb and high-sugar options.
Go test this out for yourself. Visit your local supermarket and compare the price of a punnet of strawberries to a candy bar. Which is cheaper? If you didn’t have much money, which would you choose?
The UN is working to reduce the number of hungry people to zero by 2030. This is represented by UN SDG Goal 2: Zero Hunger.
In Fiji, one of the countries with the highest levels of obesity, GVI has been working to support local communities with setting up their own vegetable gardens.
Nutrition and cooking workshops are also held.
GVI runs regular healthy eating workshops in Fiji. In one of these workshops, women from the local community demonstrate how to cook a nutritious meal to encourage the community to eat healthy, nutrient-rich meals.
These training opportunities enable individuals to make sustainable lifestyle changes in the community. The garden means that the community is less dependent on the ups and downs of the international market and the low production of in-country farmers.
Community vegetable gardens can provide the choice of a nutritious, natural treat over a prepackaged sugary treat. Our other community development projects around the world, in Thailand, India, Nepal, Mexico, Costa Rica, and South Africa, also feature many community garden projects similar to those run in Fiji.
Major global health issues
Besides malnutrition, there are many other issues affecting health on a global scale. In the past, the main topic of focus was communicable diseases like hepatitis, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.
Increased access to clean water and improved education around proper sanitation has resulted in an overall decrease in the prevalence of transferable diseases worldwide. But while current strategies to prevent disease are working, efforts to improve sanitation shouldn’t slow down.
While teaching good hygiene practices is still beneficial, the importance of good nutritional education and preventing personal harm is now emphasised.
For example, explaining the dangers of a sugary diet, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking tobacco, using unsafe cooking fuels, driving recklessly, and walking across a busy highway, is imperative.
Likewise, many low-income countries lack emergency response resources. This means that providing opportunities for community members to learn first aid skills can help to save lives.
But while the focus of the global healthcare community has now shifted to non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, communicable diseases remain a burden in low-income settings.
While non-communicable diseases accounted for 74% of all deaths globally in 2019, communicable diseases are still responsible for the majority of deaths in low-income countries.
Today however, the most overwhelming threat to our overall global health and well-being is the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve been facing since its discovery in Wuhan, China in late 2019.
Most people infected with COVID-19 will experience mild-to-moderate respiratory illness and recover quickly without needing any special treatment. However, people over 60, and those with underlying health conditions are more likely to develop serious illness.
And, it’s not just people’s physical health that has taken a knock because of COVID-19. There have also been serious socio-economic side effects that will further contribute to health issues, including mental health issues, for a long time to come.
COVID-19 spreads mainly through drops of saliva from the nose and mouth, so it’s important that you also practise good etiquette when coughing or sneezing. The most effective way to protect yourself and others from infection is by wearing a face mask, washing your hands regularly and not touching your face.
And, the best way to prevent and slow down the spread of this virus worldwide is to be well informed.
The UN tackles the problems of health and well-being under Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being. The World Health Organisation (WHO) oversees the objectives set under this goal.
GVI helps to further the aims of this goal through public health projects. Our public health projects are available in Thailand, South Africa, Nepal and Mexico. These projects all promote health and wellness through education, and do not involve any hands-on or diagnostic medical work, as per our ethical guidelines.
During these projects we conduct workshops with students and community members to teach them about preventive healthcare practices. This involves WASH (water and sanitation for health) classes where we emphasise the importance of washing hands and brushing teeth, as well as healthy cooking and eating workshops.
Through our sports programs, we promote the importance of daily exercise. We also run maternal and child health, as well as first aid workshops.
Global child health and primary education
Children are key to our success, yet many children across the world do not have some of their most basic needs met. Rates of under-five child mortality remain high.
Child health and education go hand in hand. Malnutrition of children leads to permanent physiological damage, known colloquially as “stunting”. Children who are hungry cannot concentrate and, thus, cannot learn. Children who go chronically hungry for long periods of time can develop difficulties in their learning abilities and concentration due to hunger. This means they might not be able to achieve their academic or professional potential.
Even when children are attending school, the quality of their education might be poor, or educational capacity and resources may be limited. This means that they might leave school without the necessary numeracy or literacy skills required. It’s estimated that approximately 600 million children are not mastering basic mathematics and literacy while at school.
The UN aims to combat this trend in low-quality learning by uniting organisations under UN SDG Goal 4: Quality Education. GVI helps to further this objective through our child development projects in Nepal, South Africa, Fiji, India, Costa Rica, Thailand, Mexico and Laos, as well as our teaching projects in Costa Rica, Thailand, Laos, Nepal and South Africa.
The need for gender equality
Although women make up approximately half of the population, there have historically been social barriers to economic and personal freedom for women. While much has been done to alleviate this, there is still quite a way to go, especially in low- and middle-income settings.
Women are disempowered from a young age, when they are held back from attending school for financial reasons, or because of the perception that their education does not matter. Globally, women still earn less than men, and women with children tend to earn even less. This is a waste of potential and hampers progress on obstacles to global prosperity.
Women’s empowerment has far-reaching benefits for the world. It has been estimated that if women farmers could be given the same resources as men, 150 million more people could be fed, effectively achieving the goal of zero hunger.
Women across the world are often the caretakers of household health, which means that if all women are taught effective healthcare practices, global wellbeing statistics could be altered dramatically. Children of educated mothers are also less likely to be malnourished and survive past the age of five.
But it is not simply the lack of access to education and financial resources that hinders women. Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death for women worldwide with Ischemic heart disease taking the number one spot in women’s mortality.
Rates of violence against women remain high, with a frightening estimate that one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. This places women at greater risk of mental health issues caused by trauma as well as sexually transmitted infections.
The UN is creating awareness around the issue of women’s rights through setting objectives under UN SDG Goal 5: Gender Equality. GVI runs several women’s empowerment projects worldwide in India, Nepal, Laos and South Africa.
For each women’s empowerment project, our team liaises with women in the community to find out what their needs are and how we can support them in achieving their goals.
Some women ask for support with running their handicraft business, others ask to work on educating young boys and girls about the value of gender equality, while others require computer literacy classes.
Empowerment work in Africa
A number of world statistics highlight a need for additional support in sub-Saharan Africa. This region has the highest child mortality rate and persons living with HIV infection in the world, as well as the most extreme rates of child stunting, the highest number of road traffic fatalities, and the lowest numeracy and literacy rates.
Its population is also one of the fastest-growing, which means more and more people are affected by these issues every day. Some of the widest gaps between income groups and genders can also be found in sub-Saharan Africa.
For this reason, Africa is highlighted as a region requiring additional support. At GVI, we offer a number of community development programs in Africa including South Africa and Ghana. There are also programs in Tanzania, Zambia, and Zanzibar.
Choose to make an impact by addressing a range of basic needs such as literacy and numeracy, child development, exercise and sports education, preventive health or women’s empowerment.
Global environmental issues
There are three major environmental issues listed by the UN. These include threats to habitats and organisms on land and underwater, as well as resource depletion.
1) Habitat and biodiversity loss
Despite the Asian elephant being endangered, they are still treated unethically in some situations. In an ideal world, all animals would be able to live in their natural habitats. However, we understand that some animal facilities play an important role in conservation. This is why GVI supports an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand where these animals can be protected in their forest habitat.
And forests are key to producing the air we breathe, yet these are being depleted at a rate of 26 million hectares every year.
Extinctions are happening at what scientists estimate to be about 1,000 times the normal pace. Not only are we losing flora and fauna, we are also damaging our ecosystems and throwing them out of balance – the effects of which we cannot anticipate due to the intricate and complex nature of these systems.
Many organisations have been working to protect local ecosystems for years. This includes the UN, which has set up specific objectives under UN SDG 15: Life on Land.
You can join us at GVI as we further these objectives, through volunteering on one of our wildlife conservation programs. On each of these programs, you’ll gather data, which will help to inform local wildlife park or sanctuary managers.
Data will also be used to present policies to other organisations and governments in order to preserve habitats around the world. Volunteer to help protect jaguars or sea turtles in Costa Rica, elephants in Thailand, or cheetahs in South Africa.
2) Ocean conservation
Most of our planet is covered in water. We depend on the oceans to maintain our rainwater systems and many populations rely on it for food and income. Oceans also absorb carbon dioxide and produce more than half of the oxygen we breathe.
But despite its importance, the ocean is under threat. Overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices are causing the endangerment and extinction of many marine species – something that has recently been highlighted in the Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy”.
Global warming has caused an increase in coral bleaching, where reefs lose vital nutrients and can no longer sustain the ecosystems that depend on them.
Commercial fishing practices dominate the market and inhibit the economic progress of local fishers, who cannot compete with these boats.
And with the effectiveness of modern-day fishing techniques comes the problem of bycatch: Where marine species such as dolphins and turtles are caught in commercial fishing nets and are later discarded.
Pollutants like boat fuel, pesticides, fertiliser, sewage, and plastics cause “dead zones” – spots where no organism can live – to form in the ocean.
The UN is dealing with this problem through objectives set under UN SDG 14: Life Below Water. GVI runs marine and coastal conservation programs in Fiji, Seychelles, Mexico and Thailand.
At each of these locations, we collect data concerning the type and number of species in the area. We also arrange and manage regular beach and seabed cleanups.
3) Water scarcity
As with food, there is actually enough fresh water for each person currently living on the planet. However, access to that water is not always possible for everyone.
Issues such as poor infrastructure, displacement, and conflict mean that many people often have to use unsafe water sources. This is a clear health and sanitation risk.
About two billion people still use a source that is contaminated with human waste, and about the same amount don’t have access to adequate toilet facilities.
The UN has set the goal of ensuring equal access to water and sanitation for all. This is represented by UN SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.
On all our community development projects across the world, we work with local partners to complete infrastructure development projects to increase the community’s access to clean water.
In both South Africa and Fiji we have previously supported the community on projects to construct rainwater harvesting systems.
Global issues that require policy solutions
Certain global issues cannot be solved by on-the-ground, grassroots-style projects. These include the upholding of international law and peace, assisting with the decolonisation of nations and ensuring the effective running of democracies.
These are the activities that organisations like the UN oversee as a regulatory institution. However, there are a number of policy-level issues that you can join us to work on.
The first is human rights, the basic rights of all people around the world. We partner with Save the Children in Mexico, to teach young students about their rights. In our women’s empowerment projects around the world, we also provide resources to support women as they learn more about their own rights.
The next is population growth. In our teaching and women’s empowerment projects we support both girls and women in their educational development.
It has been shown that by increasing women’s access to education, population growth decreases. In this way, these projects contribute to stabilising the global population.
Climate change is another issue that can be most effectively solved through policy change, as most fossil fuel emissions are produced by factories, electricity production and cars.
However, we work on educating many communities about the importance of protecting the local environment. These communities might then be compelled to select their leaders based on their effective environmental policies.
Take action when and where you can
Now it’s up to you to choose.
You now know which global issues the UN considers most important, and how you can contribute to the UN SDGs. All that’s left to do is pick a GVI program to get started.
Choose the cause you care most about, rather than the one the UN considers most important. Working on what you are passionate about means you’re more likely to stick with and put everything you have into the project, resulting in a more fulfilling experience for you, and a greater impact on the ground.
If you ever need help choosing a program or advice about fundraising for your volunteering trip, feel free to contact us. Our enrolment advisors spend all day speaking to people just like you, looking to match their purpose to a project out in the world.