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This paper provides a context for this special edition. It highlights the scale of the challenge of nursing shortages, but also makes the point that there is a policy agenda that provides workable solutions.An overview of nurse:population ratios in different countries and regions of the world, highlighting considerable variations, with Africa and South East Asia having the lowest average ratios. The paper argues that the ‘shortage’ of nurses is not necessarily a shortage of individuals with nursing qualifications, it is a shortage of nurses willing to work in the present conditions. The causes of shortages are multi-faceted, and there is no single global measure of their extent and nature, there is growing evidence of the impact of relatively low staffing levels on health care delivery and outcomes. The main causes of nursing shortages are highlighted: inadequate workforce planning and allocation mechanisms, resource constrained undersupply of new staff, poor recruitment, retention and ‘return’ policies, and ineffective use of available nursing resources through inappropriate skill mix and utilisation, poor incentive structures and inadequate career support.What now faces policy makers in Japan, Europe and other developed countries is a policy agenda with a core of common themes. First, themes related to addressing supply side issues: getting, keeping and keeping in touch with relatively scarce nurses. Second, themes related to dealing with demand side challenges. The paper concludes that the main challenge for policy makers is to develop a co-ordinated package of policies that provide a long term and sustainable solution.This paper highlights the impact that nursing shortages has on clinical practice and in health service delivery. It outlines scope for addressing shortage problems and therefore for providing a more positive staffing environment in which clinical practice can be delivered.