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Accelerating Family Planning Momentum: What I Am Hearing from Leadership

Earlier this month, during the Dakar International Family Planning Conference, the President of Senegal, Mr. Abdoulaye Wade, took a bold and unprecedented stance in his address in the opening ceremony of the conference saying, “Senegalese families should limit the number of children to better battle poverty.” It was an important statement to make if we are to balance the needs of the today’s population and the moral imperative to heed the future needs of our very young population. When resources are as scarce as they seem to be these days, this is a difficult task, but one we cannot afford to ignore.

I was pleased to see at a high-level meeting, ministers of finance, planning, and health; parliamentarians; world-renowned experts; and practitioners really delve into the economic benefits of family planning. This meeting was organized by the Advance Family Planning project* (AFP) in collaboration with Ministerial Leadership Initiative, USAID, the World Bank, DFID, UNFPA, and the UN Foundation. The all-day event was structured as a forum for policymakers to discuss innovative ways to support countries’ economic growth and development. The meeting was, to quote Beth Frederick, AFP’s deputy-director, “part of a process to support them in investing their own funds to reach the Millennium Development Goals, which include ensuring universal access to reproductive health.”

The meeting satisfied its aim of offering a platform for high-level policy makers to amply exchange and share ideas and lessons learned on advancing family planning. This is especially true for countries in West Africa that could benefit so much from recent successes in East and Southern Africa as well as Asia. I was really pleased that the demographic dividend—the opportunity to advance economic development as fertility drops and the population structure changes—was the subject of much discussion. With the recent report of the world’s population reaching seven billion, it is all the more necessary to refocus efforts on the cohort of 1.8 billion young people, ages 10-24. With the demographic dividend and the need to invest in young people’s health and wellbeing front and center, the organizers set the stage for meaningful discussion on the relationship between health, population, and economic growth. Family planning was at the center of this conversation.

The combined burden of poverty and a fast growing population creates urgency for policymakers to act if they are to maximize the potential and meet the needs of a young population. And African women, who are the engine of economic growth, are also starting to recognize that larger families might not necessarily be as critical to economic sustainability as they once were, especially in urban settings. These same women, though, in many cases, are the ones with a high unmet need, but a growing demand, for contraception.

I was encouraged to see decision-makers, who have long argued for stronger family planning and reproductive health programs on the basis of health benefits, now better equipped with and incorporating macro-level data on the correlation between population and economic growth and development. While we continue to emphasize the rights of women and men to have the number of children they desire, we should also underscore the great societal gains of improved well-being, which can be linked both to more economic growth and less population growth.

* The Advance Family Planning project is led by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health Bill & Melinda Gates Institute. Partners include the Center for Communication Programs at JHU, African Women’s Development Fund, Partners in Population and Development, and Futures Group International. AFP is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Its goal is to revitalize family planning programs through increased and more effective funding and improved policy commitments at the local, national, and global levels.