Education and the other SDGs

Children holding toothbrushes and toothpaste laugh while learning about health and hygiene.

Credit: Muhd Khalifah Sani Bin Abd Latif/UNESCO

Education and the other SDGs

Key Messages

  • Tobacco is a leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide – 6.4 million in 2015 – and education is the strongest predictor of some types of tobacco use.
  • In lower middle income countries people lacking formal education were 6.5 times likelier to smoke than those with at least secondary education. In Indonesia, which has one of the world’s highest smoking rates, 81% of adults with less than primary education smoked, compared to 50% of adults with tertiary education.
  • Informal education can also affect smoking habits. In Bangladesh and Norway, anti-tobacco campaigns increased attempts to quit. But unless carefully designed, media campaigns can increase inequality in smoking prevalence by disproportionately benefiting the more educated.
  • The global action plan for non-communicable diseases highlights the importance of raising awareness to reduce factors leading to obesity. Australia’s LiveLighter campaign increased public awareness of health challenges and the value of eating well.
  • The World Health Organization put the global shortage of healthcare workers at 17.4 million, including 2.6 million doctors and 9 million nurses and midwives, in 2013. Global expenditure on health professional education was estimated at US$100 billion per year, or less than 2% of total health expenditure – a very low proportion for a highly labour-intensive and talent-driven industry.
  • Water sector professionals need to go beyond traditional water treatment and operational skills to broaden their expertise in biodiversity, synergies and information technology. However, less than 15% of 94 countries surveyed reviewed human resource strategies at least every two years.

Education is key to achieving outcomes in several SDGs, including those on health, water and sanitation, and food security.


As of 2012, non-communicable diseases, including cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory ailments and cardiovascular disease, accounted for 68% of all deaths worldwide, almost three-quarters of them in low and
middle income countries. Education can help change behaviour to reduce the occurrence of these diseases.

Tobacco use caused 6.4 million deaths in 2015. People with more education are less likely to use tobacco in both poor and rich countries. In lower middle income countries, men lacking formal education were between 1.75 and 6.5 times as likely to smoke as those with at least a secondary education. In the United States, high school dropouts were three times more likely to smoke than college graduates.

Aside from formal education, mass media campaigns can be effective in discouraging smoking. However, they are often more effective for populations of higher socio-economic status, so can increase inequality in smoking prevalence. They need to be better designed to target vulnerable populations.

Worldwide prevalence of obesity more than doubled between 1980 and 2014. The relationship between educational attainment and obesity depends on countries’ economic development level and overall prevalence of obesity. In low income countries with low prevalence of obesity, more educated women are more likely to be obese, while in high income countries, tertiary education is linked to a lower probability.

Parental education strongly influences childhood obesity, with effects again dependent on economic development level. Children of educated parents were more likely to be overweight in Kenya, but less likely to be overweight in Brazil.

Promoting better nutrition in schools helps teach good lifelong habits. In Seinäjoki, Finland, a programme to integrate health into education policies is credited with reducing obesity among 5-year-olds from 17% to 10% between 2009 and 2015.

The World Health Organization projected a global shortage of 14.5 million healthcare workers in 2030


Skilled professionals are needed to achieve the targets of SDG 3, the goal on improving health. The World Health Organization estimated a global shortage of 17.4 million healthcare workers in 2013 and projected it would still reach 14.5 million in 2030, with worsening needs-based shortages in the poorest sub-Saharan African countries. High international mobility of African, Asian and Caribbean doctors and nurses means low income countries lose professionals and face a high financial burden. Richer countries should pay for the training of the physicians who serve their populations, regardless of where they were trained.

Institutional and instructional shortcomings create equity challenges: 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa had one or no medical schools in 2008. Within countries, there is a strong urban bias, leaving rural populations underserved. To improve capacity, human resource planning for health systems should be better linked to technical and vocational education institutions to facilitate school-to-work transition, youth apprenticeships and continuing professional development, shifting away from the emphasis on hospital- and university-based training.

Achieving SDG 6 requires increased expertise to improve water and sanitation services. Human capacity issues are too little considered in the sector. Of 94 countries surveyed, less than 15% reviewed their strategies at least every two years. Lack of funding and skilled graduates and reluctance of skilled workers to work in rural areas hold back capacity development.

To achieve SDG 2 on food security, education and capacity building are essential. More educated farmers are more productive, take more measures to mitigate climate change risk and adopt more new technology. In Pakistan, educated farmers were likelier to irrigate with improved water pumps using renewable energy sources because they were better at finding and using information.

The health, agriculture, water and sanitation sectors must emphasize education completion as a key strategy for achieving their objectives. Progress on the SDGs also requires targeted actions that prioritize equity concerns in capacity building, skilled worker distribution and public awareness campaigns.