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Global influences on health and social policy

Equality, Equity and Policy: Global Influences on Health and Social Policy


For a few decades after the formation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948, developed countries tended to invest in health care services and paid relatively little attention to public health. In the last 40 years many international organisations and key reports have shaped public health policy around the world, as detailed by Irvine et al (2006) in Box 1.


Box 1: A review of major influences on current public health policy in developed countries in the second half of the 20th century.

“The importance of public health was slowly recognised over the period from 1970 to 2000 with the publication of several reports from different organisations. The first authoritative policy statement that the important determinants of health lay outside health care was in the LaLonde Report from Canada. These ideas were subsequently expressed in the WHO The Alma-Ata Declaration and were emphasised a year later by the US Surgeon General. The idea of setting goals for health improvement also began in the 1970s. The Lalonde Report and the United Kingdom Black Report recommended that targets be used, but the first explicitly stated health targets were set by the US in 1979. WHO also identified the need for such targets at this time, but did not introduce them until 1984. Since then health target shave become a central feature of public health policy in developed countries.

The Ottawa Conference on Health Promotion in 1986 championed the view that health promotion was central to achieving health goals internationally. It helped clarify the types of actions needed: that individuals need to be provided with the supportive environment and economic resources to be able to lead healthy lives. In a further development, the Healthy Cities Project was launched with the specific aim of involving political decision-makers in building a strong lobby for public health at the local level. The Healthy Cities Project illustrates how to provide means and opportunity for interventions to be implemented in communities.

Concerns with inequalities in health were emphasised in the WHO declaration of Alma-Ata, and were the focus of the United Kingdom Black Report. The Jakarta Conference on Health Promotion in 1997 urged international action on poverty, as it is the major threat to health. International acceptance of the need to tackle inequalities took longer than the acceptance of health targets, but it is now an important feature of public health policy.

The advent of the 21st century marked the coming of age of public health. The renewed version of ‘Health for All, Health for All in the 21st Century, emphasised the one constant goal of WHO that all individuals should achieve their full health potential. Public health is now regarded internationally as being a priority with this WHO goal being adopted as the overarching goal of policy. The challenges it faces in tackling problems such as obesity, inequalities in health, smoking, alcohol and substance abuse are great and will require policies which tackle the economic, social and environmental determinants of health.”

Source: Irvine et al, 2006.


Notes on the publications mentioned and highlighted in Box 1:

The LaLonde Report, written in 1974 in Canada, marked a shift from focusing on medical care to an examination of the wider determinants of health. The report introduced the ‘health fields’ concept and argued that four health fields were interdependently responsible for individual health:

  • Lifestyle
  • Health care organisation
  • Human biology
  • Environment

The Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 affirmed health as a fundamental human right. The declaration called for ‘Health for All’ by the year 2000 and suggested achieving this goal through a transformation of conventional health care systems, broad inter-sectoral collaboration and community organisation.

Black Report – For a description of the report see section 10: Inequalities in health (e.g. by region, ethnicity, socio-economic position or gender) and in access to health care, including their causes. For a description of the origins of the Black Report see

The Ottawa Conference on Health Promotion in 1986 launched the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. The Ottawa Charter formalised the view that health services should incorporate health promotion concepts such as community development, empowerment and advocacy. It identified five action areas of health promotion:

  • Building healthy public policy
  • Creating supportive environments
  • Strengthening community action
  • Developing personal skills
  • Re-orientating health care services toward prevention of illness and promotion of health.

The Healthy Cities Project, first implemented in 1987 by the WHO, aims to engage local governments in health development through a process of political commitment, institutional change, capacity building, partnership-based planning and innovative projects. It also strives to include health considerations in economic, regeneration and urban development efforts.

The Jakarta Conference on Health Promotion in 1997 reflected on lessons learned since the Ottawa conference. It identified a range of issues that were impacting on the determinants of health (pinpointing poverty as the greatest threat to health), and argued that health promotion was helping to achieve greater equity in health.

Health for All in the 21st Century, developed in 1998, is a policy to help attain the goals of Health for All set forth at the Alma Ata Conference in 1978. The policy establishes, for the first 2 decades of the 21st century, global priorities and targets to create conditions supportive of people worldwide to reach and maintain the highest attainable level of health throughout their lives.

It is now widely recognised in public health that poverty is the most important cause of preventable death and disability worldwide (Beaglehole and Bonita, 1998), therefore public health and social policy are linked. Key international actors and influences in social policy include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations (UN). However, the effect of these organisations on health is controversial (see Section 13: Critical Analysis of Investment in Health Improvement for a discussion of controversy surrounding the World Bank and IMF; see Section 11: Health Effects of International Trade for details of the WTO’s influence on health).



  • Beaglehole R, Bonita R (1998). “Public health at the crossroads: which way forward?”. Lancet, 351: 590-92.
  • Irvine L, Elliot L, Wallace H, Crombie I (2006). “A review of major influences on current public health policy in developed countries in the second half of the 20th century.” Perspectives in Public Health, 126(2): 73-78.





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