Select Page

Six critical global issues | What are the world's biggest problems and how can I help?

By Jana Jansen van Vuuren 8 months ago

Are you fed up with the way the state of the world is often bemoaned, while no one actually seems to do something about it?

News bullets abound with shocking statistics concerning the high prevalence of gender-based violence or the many people throughout the world who still do not have access to adequate medical care. Yet seemingly, our society is content to simply retell these stories, while the problems continue unabated.

Probably part of the reason most people aren’t immediately ready to jump into action is that there appear to be so many problems and no simple solution presents itself for any of them.

Where then is an eager change-maker to start? Which of the current issues are most urgent to attack head-on and can one person, really truly, make that much of a difference?

But working to solve global issues doesn’t have to be that confusing or stressful. There are well-established structures in place to help you identify which problem is most important as well as organizations, like GVI, which can help you contribute towards projects that take significant strides towards resolving these problems.

The United Nations (UN) currently lists 18 ‘Global Issues’ on their site. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather to be 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 to the most important issues of our time, and which require the most critical attention. These are known the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or UNSDGs.

There are many organizations that align their mission to these specific goals. GVI is one such organization. To learn more about our commitment to furthering progress on the goals set by the UN, watch our video below. 


This post is intended to be a brief guide to some of the world’s biggest problems, according to the UN, and how by partnering with GVI, you can be part of the solution.

Your passion for global change might also have an upside you aren’t aware of yet. Did you know that it’s been shown that working on these important issues is great for career satisfaction? In helping others, you might just discover that you’ve found what you know to be ‘meaningful work’, something most people spend their either lives searching for.

Food security

Obesity is a major health issue in Fiji.

GVI runs regular healthy eating workshops in Fiji. In one of these classes, a woman from the local community demonstrates how to cook a nutritious meal.

The number of hungry people in the world has increased over the last few years. One in nine people in the world habitually go hungry, and, as a result, suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Food security is the biggest threat to the overall health of the human population, more so that malaria, tuberculosis or HIV. 

So, what is the problem? How can it be 2018 and people are still going hungry?

The problem is not we aren’t producing enough food (although this might be a problem in the future), but that people lack access to food. Not having enough money to purchase basic food supplies and not being able to grow your own food are the two main causes of being unable to acquire food. At the root of all these problems is conflict.   

While hunger has steadily decreased over the past decade, over the last few years an upsurge of conflict has doubled the number of refugees in the world.

Farmers need to abandon their land to save themselves and their families. Once these farmers reach a safer location, they have no land rights, which means they can’t grow crops. These refugees then need to purchase more highly priced exported foods. When they don’t have enough funds, families don’t eat. 

Even though approximately 11% of the world is undernourished, more people, about 40% of the adult population, are overweight.

No country in the world had seen any kind of decrease in obesity rate. In fact, it is 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. Persons consume nutrient deficient, high-carb, preservative-rich prepacked food and store unhealthy weight as a result.

Another surprising fact about obesity is that, while you might it expect it to only occur among the wealthy, it actually affects people at every income level. The reason for this is that nutritious food is often more expensive and, when food prices rise, poorer communities have no choice but to choose prepackaged, high-carb options.

You can 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 did not 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 UNSDG 2. In Fiji, one of the countries with the highest levels of obesity, GVI has been working to help the local community with set up their own vegetable garden.

We also conduct nutrition and cooking workshops to provide them with the training they need to create sustainable lifestyle changes in their 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.

With the help of GVI, they now have a choice of a 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

global health issues

GVI runs numerous healthcare projects around the world. Above, young students in South Africa learn the importance of washing their hands on a regular basis.

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. However, this does not mean that efforts to improve sanitation should be abated, only that what is currently being done to prevent disease is actually working. 

The focus of the global healthcare community has now shifted to non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as road traffic injuries and deaths. Communicable diseases now kill 70% of persons and low-income countries are the most severely affected. 

While it is still important to focus on teaching good hygiene practices, the importance of good nutritional education and preventing personal harm is now being emphasized. 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.

In most low-income countries emergency response is not of the highest standards, which means that empowering individuals in the local community with first aid can help to save lives.  

The UN tackles the problems of health and well-being under UNSDG 3 and the World Health Organisation (WHO) oversees the objectives set under this goal.

GVI helps to further the aims of UNSDG 3 through our healthcare projects. Our healthcare projects are available in Thailand, South Africa, Nepal, Mexico and India. These projects are mostly educational.

We conduct workshops with students and community members to teach them about preventative healthcare practices. This involves WASH (Water and Sanitation for Health) classes where we teach them about 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

child health and education is global issue

While the number of children who are enrolled in schools has increased, the quality of education remains low. In Fiji, GVI volunteers help children improve their learning by using lego bricks to build words.

Children are key to our future success, yet many across the world do not have access to some of their most basic needs and approximately six million children die each year before reaching the age of five. 

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 are chronically hungry develop cognitive difficulties, which means they might never be able to achieve their actual academic or professional potential. 

Even when children are attending school, the quality of their education is likely poor. This means that they might leave school without the necessary numeracy or literacy skills required. It is estimated that approximately 600 million children are not mastering basic math and literacy while at school.

The UN aims to combat this trend in low-quality learning by uniting organizations under UNSDG 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

gender equality is a global issue

Supporting women in becoming more educated and financially independent has benefits for the physical and economic well-being of a country. Above, GVI volunteers work with young mothers to provide training and support during and after pregnancy.

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 the developing world.

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.

Empowering women 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 more 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 plagues women. HIV is the leading cause of death for women worldwide and many women and girls do not have the ability to protect themselves from sexual violence. Many women report that their first sexual encounter was a forced one. How can women be expected to protect herself from disease if she cannot control her means of infection?

The UN is creating awareness around the issue of women’s rights through setting objectives under UNSDG 5, gender equality. GVI runs several women’s empowerment projects worldwide in India, Nepal, Laos and South Africa.

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 ask for help with running their handicraft business, others ask us to work on educating young boys and girls about the value of gender equality, while others ask for computer literacy classes.

The overwhelming needs of Africa

africa global issue

Many of the most critical issues facing the world today are at their most severe on the African continent. Above, a young student in South Africa draws the continent in a geography class supported by GVI.

A number of worrying world statistics seem to point to a severe need for humanitarian support in Sub-Saharan Africa. This region has the most child deaths and persons living with HIV in the world, the most extreme rates of child stunting, the highest number of road traffic deaths and the lowest numeracy and literacy rates.

Its population is also the fastest growing, which means more and more people are affected by these issues every day. Some of the widest gaps between rich and poor individuals as well as men and women can also be found in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For this reason, Africa is highlighted as a specific global issue by the UN. At GVI we offer a number of community development programs in South Africa, which allows you to help Africa on it’s way to sustainable prosperity.

Choose to help with a range of basic needs such as literacy and numeracychild developmentexercise and sport education, preventive healthcare 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.

Habitat and biodiversity loss

Biodiversity loss, deforestation and mass extinction are global issues.

Despite the Asian elephant being endangered, they are still used as entertainment for tourists. GVI supports an elephant sanctuary in Thailand where these magnificent animals can be protected.

Forests are key to producing the very air we breathe, yet these are being depleted at a rate of 13 million hectares every year, according to UN statistics.

Extinctions are happening at what scientists estimate to be about 1,000 times the normal pace. Not only are we losing some very special flora and fauna, but 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.

The statistics can be incredibly shocking when you read them at first. The key is to use direct your outrage into action. Innumerable organizations have been working to protect local ecosystems for many under years, one of the most recent being the UN, who have set specific objectives under UNSDG 15, life on land.

Help us at GVI further these objectives through volunteering on one of our wildlife conservation programs. On each of these programs, you will gather data, which will help to inform local wildlife park or sanctuary managers.

Data will also be used to present policies to other organizations and governments in order to preserve other habitats around the world. Volunteer to help protect jaguars or turtle in Costa Rica or cheetahs in South Africa.

Ocean conservation

Ocean conservation is a global issue.

Oceans are threatened by pollution and unsustainable fishing methods. This image was taken by a GVI volunteer in Fiji while collecting data that will help with the preservation of coral reefs in the area.

Most of our planet is covered in water. We depend on the oceans to maintain our rainwater system and many populations rely on it for food and income. Oceans also absorb carbon dioxide and produce about 30% of our oxygen.

But despite its importance, the ocean is under threat. Overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices are causing the endangerment and extinction of many fish species.

Commercial fishing methods harm or even kill animals that will never be eaten, resulting in death on a massive scale for no real reason.

Commercial fishing boats also take work away from local fishers, who cannot compete with these boats. Pollutants like boat fuel, pesticides, fertilizer, 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 UNSDG 14, life below water. GVI runs marine and coastal conservation programs in Fiji, Seychelles, Mexico and Thailand.

At all 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. 

Water scarcity

Water scarcity is a global issue.

Safe drinking water is key to lowering the rate of prevalence of transferable diseases. Above, children in South Africa are being taught the importance of brushing their teeth, an activity which requires access to clean water.

Like 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. Poor infrastructure and conflict mean that many people often have to use unsafe water sources and, as a result, many people each year die due to poor sanitation.

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 UNSDG 6. On all our community development projects across the world, we help locals complete infrastructure development projects to increase their access to clean water. In both South Africa and Fiji we have previously helped with the construction of 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 safe use of nuclear technology, the upholding of international law and peace, assisting with the decolonization of nations and ensuring the effective running of democracies. 

These are the activities that organizations like the UN oversee as a regulatory institution. However, there are a number of policy-level issues, that you can help us work on indirectly.

The first is human rights, the inalienable rights of all peoples 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 help women 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 education, population growth decreases. In this way, we indirectly contribute to stabilizing the global population. 

Climate change is another issue that can most effectively be solved through policy change as most fossil fuel emissions are produced by factories and cars. However, we work on educating many local communities about the importance of protecting the local environment. These communities might at later stage be compelled to select their leaders based on their effective environmental policies.

If you are passionate about advocating policy change, be warned that, while it is rewarding, it can also be a slow, drawn-out process. Bringing multiple stakeholders with diverse interests together to agree on a common goal can be difficult and it would be wise to try working on a few smaller-scale projects before attempting to take on more overarching problems. 

Take action when and where you can

Now it’s up to you to choose. You now know which global issues the UN considers primary, and how you can help further the cause. All you have to do is pick a GVI program to get started. However, we would recommend that you choose the cause you personally care most about, rather than the one the UN considers most primary.

Working on what you are passionate about means you are more likely to stick with and put everything you have into the project, resulting in a more fulfilling experience for you and greater impact on the ground.

If you ever need help choosing a program or advice about collecting funding for your trip, feel free to contact us. Our enrollment advisors spend all day speaking people just like you, looking to match their purpose to a project out in the world.