from Development Channel

Family Planning as a Global Priority

November 15, 2013

Pregnant women in Anand, India, August 2013 (Courtesy Reuters, Mansi Thapliyal).
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The third annual International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) closes today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with new and increased commitments from countries around the world to bolster local and global family planning initiatives. The conference, under the theme “Full Access, Full Choice,” was co-hosted by the The Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Federal Ministry of Health of Ethiopia. This year’s conference was the largest family planning conference in history; thousands of policymakers, researchers, and advocates came together to increase awareness of the benefits of family planning, such as improving maternal and child health, education rates, economic growth, and social stability.

In April 2011, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and I published a CFR report titled Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy that discusses similar themes. The report emphasizes how investing in family planning supports a myriad of U.S. foreign policy and international development objectives. Allowing women to make decisions about the size of their families and the timing of their pregnancies has positive health outcomes such as reduced maternal and child mortality, improved child health, and fewer safe and unsafe abortions. Moreover, family planning is highly cost effective: for every U.S. dollar spent on family planning, six are saved, and communities reap substantial economic benefits. When women are given access to contraceptives and other modern methods of family planning, they are able to stay in school -- and extended education is directly correlated with increased income. These women are also more likely to join the workforce and run their own businesses, allowing them to contribute to their local economies and fulfill their potential to be productive members of their communities.

For decades, the United States has played a leading role in promoting access to contraceptive education and resources in developing countries. Since the launch of its first family planning program in 1965, USAID has continued to expand its international family planning efforts and now operates in more than fifty countries around the world. USAID has helped countries that previously struggled to provide family planning services– such as Indonesia and Mexico – reduce fertility rates and improve community health by providing financial and technical assistance. Through USAID, the State Department, and other government agencies, the United States has helped millions of women around the world plan their pregnancies, and their lives.

An estimated 220 million women want but do not have access to safe, effective, affordable, modern methods of contraception. This wide and unmet need results in 80 million unplanned pregnancies, 30 million unplanned births, and 20 million unsafe abortions every year. But despite these troubling numbers, progress is being made, especially in high-need countries. According to the Family Planning 2020 progress report released at ICFP 2013, the countries with the greatest unmet need for family planning have committed to dramatically increasing access to contraceptive information, services, and supplies. Five such countries – Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mauritania, and Myanmar – announced new pledges to their domestic family planning campaigns, and the conference ended with “A Call to Action” asking governments to push for universal access to contraceptives and for the international community to make the issue a priority on the post-2015 development agenda.

In our 2011 CFR report, Gayle and I recommended that ensuring universal access to family planning remain a U.S. foreign policy priority. This week’s meeting in Ethiopia underscores the importance of investing in family planning. Not only does it save the millions of lives, it also helps create healthy, resilient families in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world: a positive outcome for U.S. security interests. As international development funding becomes increasingly strained, the United States and governments around the world should remember the social, economic, and political benefits they stand to gain from investing in family planning.