We assessed progress for primary health care in countries since Alma-Ata. First we analysed life expectancy relative to national income and HIV prevalence to identify overachieving and underachieving countries. Then we focused on the 30 low-income and middle-income countries with the highest average yearly reduction of mortality among children less than 5 years of age, describing coverage and equity of primary health care as well as non-health sector actions. These 30 countries have scaled up selective primary health care (eg, immunisation, family planning), and 14 have progressed to comprehensive primary health care, marked by high coverage of skilled attendance at birth. Good governance and progress in non-health sectors are seen in almost all of the 14 countries identified with a comprehensive primary health care system. However, these 30 countries include those that are making progress despite very low income per person, political instability, and high HIV/AIDS prevalence. Thailand has the highest average yearly reduction in mortality among children less than 5 years of age (8·5%) and has achieved universal coverage of immunisation and skilled birth attendance, with low inequity. Lessons learned from all these countries include the need for a nationally agreed package of prioritised and phased primary health care that all stakeholders are committed to implementing, attention to district management systems, and consistent investment in primary health-care extension workers linked to the health system. More detailed analysis and evaluation within and across countries would be invaluable in guiding investments for primary health care, and expediting progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and "health for all".