World Health Organization Sets a Goal of Health for All

In 1977, the World Health Organization began to promote its vision that good health is dependent on many individual, social, and environmental factors. This “Health for All” movement served to guide the organization’s approach to public health through the end of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

In announcing its “Health for All” framework, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that good health is a fundamental right for all people and placed on governments the responsibility to accomplish individual nations’ health objectives. In May, 1977, the World Health Assembly, WHO’s supreme decision-making body, adopted a resolution emphasizing that the main social goal of governments should be the attainment by the year 2000 of a level of health for all people that would permit them to lead socially and economically productive lives. The International Conference on Primary Health Care International Conference on Primary Health Care (1978) held in 1978 at Alma-Ata in the Soviet Union, led by Halfdan Theodor Mahler, director-general of WHO, reaffirmed the important role of governments. The Declaration of Alma-Ata Declaration of Alma-Ata (1978)[Declaration of Alma Ata] called on governments to develop national policies, strategies, and plans of action necessary to sustain primary health care as part of their comprehensive national health systems. World Health Organization;Health for All movement
Health for All movement
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World Health Organization;Health for All movement
Health for All movement
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Mahler, Halfdan Theodor
Lalonde, Marc
Black, Douglas

The attainment of WHO’s goal of “health for all by the year 2000″ relied on governments around the world making significant changes in their systems of primary health care. These changes included raising awareness about health matters and enabling citizens to deal with health problems by increasing their knowledge and providing them with valid information. The Declaration of Alma-Ata went further, stating that health services should extend beyond medical care to include agriculture, industry, education, and housing. In addition, nations should encourage their citizens to adopt good eating and exercise habits.

The World Health Organization acknowledged poverty as one of the world’s greatest threats to good health and encouraged governments to focus on improving the social and economic environments in which people live. The Health for All movement also emphasized the principle of equity of care, noting the need for nations to target vulnerable populations, to provide health services where people live, and to design effective interventions to encourage communities to increase control over their own health services.

Even before the adoption of the WHO Health for All campaign, the Canadian government had thought seriously about how best to ensure a high level of health, social well-being, and income security for Canadian citizens. In 1974, A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians was published, the first Canadian government document to suggest that factors other than health care contribute to the health of the population. The document, which became known as the Lalonde Report Lalonde Report (1974) (for Marc Lalonde, Canada’s minister of national health and welfare), introduced a concept of health based on human biology, the environment, lifestyle, and health care organization. This concept provided a framework for relevant government policy and action at federal, provincial, and territorial levels.

The Ottawa Conference on Health Promotion in 1986 Ottawa Conference on Health Promotion (1986) championed the view that health promotion is central to achieving health goals internationally and helped to clarify the types of actions governments must take for individuals to be provided with the supportive environment and economic resources they need to lead healthy lives. The healthy cities movement was introduced in Canada in the mid-1980’s, with the primary goal of creating substantially healthy environments through planned changes to improve community life. The Healthy Cities Project 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 importance of focusing on “health for all” was restated in the United Kingdom with the publication of the Black Report Black Report (1980) in 1980. This report, produced by a committee on health inequality chaired by Sir Douglas Black, offered convincing evidence that poverty and ill health are linked and that material deprivation is a major determinant of ill health and death. It also concluded that people’s health-related behaviors are constrained by structural and environmental factors over which they have no control. The report made thirty-seven recommendations for tackling inequalities in health care and for setting national health goals. Although it was rejected by the incoming conservative government in Great Britain, the Black Report had an impact on political thought in other countries.

The regional office of WHO for Europe took important steps toward the attainment of the goal of health for all by the year 2000 with the formulation in 1980 of a common health policy and the regional committee’s adoption of thirty-eight wide-ranging targets in 1984. The targets represented a common view of what could be “health for all” in Europe and constituted a major challenge for the thirty-three WHO member states in the European region. In the United Kingdom this project spawned a range of initiatives across England and Northern Ireland. “Health action zones” were one part of a range of area-based initiatives that emerged shortly before the Labour government came to power in 1997; these initiatives were intended to address social and health inequalities spanning different governmental departments.

Health for All innovations also received attention in the United States in the 1970’s. In 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the National Consumer Health Information and Health Promotion Act, National Consumer Health Information and Health Promotion Act (1976) which created the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion This led to the publication in 1979 of a report from the U.S. surgeon general titled Healthy People, which acted on the recommendations of the Lalonde Report and pioneered the introduction of national health targets. The report stressed that the improvement of health and quality of life for Americans was reliant on a renewed national commitment to efforts to prevent disease and promote health. The document set goals for the reduction of mortality rates among infants, children, adolescents, and young adults and for increased independence among older people. Canada’s Lalonde Report and the United Kingdom’s Black Report had recommended that governments set health targets, but the first explicitly stated health targets were set by the United States in 1979. Following the publication of Healthy People, health targets became a central feature of public health policy in many developed countries.

During the closing decades of the twentieth century, several nationwide campaigns helped the United States come to terms with the challenge of public health. In particular, high-profile public policy initiatives such as Healthy People 2000 Healthy People 2000 furnished health professionals and the general public with excellent information concerning the importance of building infrastructures that are critical to good health among all citizens. The health objectives set by the United States reflected a progression from the simple assessment of health status to proposals for preventive interventions directed not only toward individuals but also toward the social and physical environments in which they live.


Health promotion initiatives based on Health for All models have been faced with many obstacles. Political barriers are a core problem for Health for All initiatives. Improving health is a long-term concern, whereas the concerns of national and local politicians are driven by short-term election cycles. Policy makers tend to think in terms of an agenda for health care financing rather than in terms of an agenda for health promotion.

In July, 1997, a WHO conference held in Jakarta, Indonesia, focused on the continuation of Health for All strategies. In May, 1998, WHO established its new global initiatives to strive for “health for all in the twenty-first century.” In September, 2000, a large gathering of heads of governments adopted the Millennium Declaration, Millennium Declaration (2000) which sets out eight health goals to be reached by 2015. These goals build on agreements made at United Nations conferences in the 1990’s and represent commitments to reduce poverty and hunger and to address the problems of ill health, gender inequality, lack of education, lack of access to clean water, and environmental degradation. The Health for All movement in the twenty-first century represents the continuation of the original WHO resolution made decades earlier, which set a vision of health that promotes a high quality of life for all people. World Health Organization;Health for All movement
Health for All movement

Further Reading

  • Benedict, Tevina. “Achieving Health for All: The Role of Health Promotion in Canadian Health Reform.” American Review of Canadian Studies 23 (Spring, 1993): 83-102. Presents an informative discussion regarding the government policies relating to the health movement in Canada.
  • Berkeley, Dina, and Jane Springett. “From Rhetoric to Reality: Barriers Faced by Health for All Initiatives.” Social Science and Medicine 63 (2006):179-188. Discusses the opposition to health programs promoted by national governments and the politics associated with the changing health care landscape.
  • Burci, Gian Luca, and Claude-Henri Vignes. World Health Organization. Boston: Kluwer Law International, 2004. Comprehensive history of the organization includes discussion of the Health for All movement.
  • Irvine, Linda, Lawrie Elliott, Hilary Wallace, and Iain K. Crombie. “A Review of Major Influences on Current Public Health Policy in Developed Countries in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century.” Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 126 (March, 2006): 73-78. Examines how approaches to health policy evolved following World War II.
  • Siddiqi, Javed. World Health and World Politics: The World Health Organization and the U.N. System. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Presents an in-depth analysis of WHO’s attempt to serve as an umbrella organization that guides principles of public health for the entire world.

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