Population experts demand funding for international family planning

A high-level population conference has appealed to international donors to step up financial support for family planning and reproductive health services in developing countries.

This call comes at a time when foreign aid for international family planning is one of the most divisive topics for US Congress to resolve in its FY2012 budget considerations. The US is the key global donor in this field.

Described by its organizers at University College London as the largest conference on population issues to be held this year, Population Footprints examined the capacity of the planet to sustain a human presence which is due to reach seven billion in October.

The six billion threshold was passed just 12 years ago. Earlier this month, the UN published an upward revision of its long term projections of global population.

Academics, campaigners and politicians attending the conference from around the world discussed what strategies might encourage a lower population trajectory. They addressed the troubling contexts of food security, climate change, migration and a skewed demographic profile in which richer countries have too few people of working age whilst the poorer countries have too many.

The debates were marked by disagreements between the participants, a point acknowledged in the closing summary by Professor Anthony Costello, Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said, “because what unites us is much greater. What unites all of us is that funding for women’s health, maternal health, child health, fertility reduction, family planning – all the drivers for moving towards a stable population – is desperately needed.”

Describing current global funding as “derisory”, Professor Costello deplored that “the World Health Organization has seen its budget halved for reproductive health and family planning.”

A downward trend in this area of funding was indeed a feature of the April compromise which saw Congress approve the US budget for FY2011. International aid for family planning and reproductive health was cut by 5% to $615 million.

The battle now turns to FY2012. President Obama’s original request for $769 million will be subject to forces pulling strongly in both directions.

The objective to provide universal global access to reproductive health services by 2015 is included in the Millennium Development Goals, a set of commitments agreed by world governments.

There are 215 million women in developing countries with an unmet need for contraception. The cost of fulfilling this area of reproductive health alone is estimated at $3.6 billion.

Campaigners say that it is impossible to achieve the MDG target without significant new donor funding. They advocate that US support should rise towards $1 billion per annum.

However, many Republican members of Congress considered the FY2011 compromise to be too generous. They will press for further cuts for FY2012.

The UN Population Fund is a favored target. Its US support for FY2011 was slashed from $55 million to $40 million. Republicans are under lobby pressure to revert to the days of the Bush Administration when UNFPA was denied funding altogether.

The new Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, was a leading participant in the Population Footprints conference. Whilst he maintained a diplomatic silence on his budgetary relationship with the US government, Dr Osotimehin was unambiguous in his views about priorities for population policies. “If we protect women’s rights, their ability to make choices, we will see a lot of difference in population,” he told the conference.

The Ugandan Minister of State for Finance and Planning, Professor Ephraim Kamuntu, presented the same opinion in language designed to appeal to politicians, hard-pressed on delivering budgetary value for money. “We have done a study in Uganda which shows for every $1 you invest in reproductive health it saves you $3 eventually in health costs that result from non-spacing of children and complications in giving birth,” he said.

Africa’s rate of population growth is the highest of the world’s continents, its numbers projected to double to 2 billion by 2050. But attitudes are changing, according to Eliya Zulu, Director of the African Institute for Development Policy.

“Unlike 15-20 years ago, more African people now want to limit their family size but they are not doing that because they do not have access to family planning,” he said in a BBC World Service interview at the conference.

Several speakers referred to the long term decline in foreign aid for family planning. This trend was evidenced in a scrupulously factual presentation by Hania Zlotnik, Director of the UN Population Division. She demonstrated that, since 1996, donor assistance for family planning programmes has fallen by at least 50% in nearly all African countries.

“In most high fertility countries, contraceptive prevalence is increasing by less than 1% per year,” she said. “At that rate it’s going to take something like 30-40 years for them to meet the unmet need they already have.”

Dr Mairo Mandara, a gynecologist from Nigeria, highlighted the extremes that exist in the poorest regions of the continent. In northern Nigeria, the average age at which girls are married is just 15. Only 3% have access to contraception. Nigeria’s population of 158 million is the highest in Africa.

The Nigerian government has taken the initiative of embarking on its own programme of free family planning services. “Africa should fund family planning, not rely only on donors,” Eliya Zulu told his followers on Twitter.

The share of funding between potential donors was not tackled in any detail but speakers were unwavering in their view of the priority for spending. Siri Tellier, former Director of UNFPA in Geneva, summed it up in population numbers: “the use of family planning will be the most important determinant in whether we go to 11 billion in 2050 or whether we go to 9 billion in 2050.”

The Population Footprints conference was sponsored by The Leverhulme Trust and The Lancet medical journal.

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this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News

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