Melinda Gates helps family planning make a fresh start

Posted: 16 July 2012

Author: John Rowley

As the dust settles on last week’s London Family Planning Summit it is becoming clear that this event has a good chance of giving a promising new start to the century-long battle to bring informed choice over child-bearing to women everywhere – poor as well as rich. 

It could bring not only a much needed boost to donor funding over the next eight years to 2020, but a new awareness by governments and people of the many synergistic benefits to health, development and social wellbeing of giving women better control over this central aspect of their lives, especially in the 69 poorest countries of the world where that right is so frequently denied.

For this, much credit must go to the British Government and Melinda Gates who has spoken out passionately on behalf of the women she has met and talked to around the world. Speaking in London she said: "What we're doing is an enormous undertaking… We're committed to innovating constantly; we're committed to educating women about their options… It is a difficult task but it is absolutely urgent."

Melinda Gates

"Family planning works” she says “not just because smaller families can be healthier and wealthier but because empowering women is the key to growing economies and healthy open societies."

The Gates Foundation is now devoting much of its attention to securing the summit’s aim of providing access to family planning to 120 million additional girls and women in the poorest countries by 2020. To achieve that the organisers say an extra $4.3 billion is needed. Pledges from donors already add up to $2.6 billion, with some $2 billion to be found by developing countries.

UK leads pledges

The largest summit pledge comes from the United Kingdom which will double its family planning effort, to provide an extra $800m (£516m) from its existing aid budget over the next eight years. The Gates Foundation will also double its annual contribution (from $70m to $140m) making a total over the eight years of $560m.

Australia will give an additional $59m, France $125m, Germany $122m, Korea $43m, Netherlands 16m, Norway $200m, while the UNFPA will double the proportion of its resources going to family planning , making an additional $380m. The European Union pledged $28m on the eve of the summit.

The United States did not pledge further funds. Rajiv Shah, head of USAID explained that the agency was already committed to spend $640m on family planning this year, but that the summit was important ‘to encourage new donors’. (Election sensitivity to right wing and religious opponents of anything to do with family planning may account for this hesitation.)

Besides pledges from donor countries, presidents and health ministers from developing countries came forward to outline their commitments to expand family planning programmes.

India said it planned to have universal access to health care, including family planning by 2020. It is expanding choice of method and training 200,000 health workers to counsel and offer family planning after childbirth. Community distribution will be expanded with over 800,000 community health workers.

Malawi is planning to raise the age of marriage to 18, and to develop a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programme, to meet the needs of its young people who make up over half its population. Senegal said it would invest in a mass-communication campaign involving religious and political leaders.

Ethiopian health worker
An Ethiopian health worker stops to teach a woman about the importance of sanitation. Health Extension Workers are trained in first aid, disease prevention, family health and environmental sanitation. Photo © Gates Foundation

The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, pledged to continue his government’s support for family planning which, with donor help, had seen a big rise in the use of modern methods of family planning and a levelling off of unmet need.

“The EU development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said he was heartened by the commitment shown by developing countries at the summit:"Helping to provide family planning services is one of the best investments that a country can make in its future."

NGO support

There was also wide approval from a number of sometimes critical NGOs who welcomed the sensitive approach to cultural issues involved by both the UK Department of International Development (DfiD) and the Gates Foundation. Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children said he was encouraged that developing countries were also emphasising those issues. “It feels like we are getting a common approach from donors, NGOs, developing countries and the UN," he said. Action Aid said in a statement that the summit had “taken a great leap towards helping millions of women and girls in the world’s poorest countries enjoy the basic rights that we in the UK take for granted.”

For family planning organisations, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) with over 170 partner associations around the world providing services and information, the surge in funding and enthusiasm for the cause is very welcome. IPPF has already delivered a declaration of support from 1,292 campaigning groups and charities in 177 countries.

It has committed itself, by 2020, to triple the number of women’s and girls’ lives saved each year. It will expand its network of 64,000 clinics and community-based outlets to meet these needs and triple services to young people. According to the head of evaluation at IPPF, Heidi Marriott, this will be made possible by a steady increase in funding to the core budget , which topped $127 million in 2011, with a larger amount in bilateral aid to national associations.

Family planning activists say these are all hopeful signs, which come as a great relief, as well as a challenge, to those working in this field. But it will be some time before all the pledges of action are proved to be real, or a false dawn such as that which followed the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994. Others point out that the chances of making real progress will also be strengthened by greater efforts in other aspects of maternal and child health and in the education of girls, in particular. The appointment of former British prime minister Gordon Brown to be UN envoy for education is a sign that failure to make more progress on the Millennium Goals of primary education for all is now also coming into focus.

This time, hopefully, the family planning message has really come up from the villages and shanties of the poor world and the rich world has learnt to listen.


John Rowley is founder/editor of Planet 21.

A new series of reports, issued by prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, reviews the evidence for the effects of population and family planning on people's well-being and the environment. They show how lack of access to family planning carries a huge price for women and conclude that making family planning more widely available can not only play a central role in achieving UN targets for maternal health, eradication of poverty, education, and gender equality, health and survival but also be of economic benefit. View a 20 minute podcast on the journal’s key findings here.

See the latest Population Council  video at:

See the Gates Foundation  video on Improving Access to Family Planning, and the  Melinda Gates video on Where’s the controversy in saving lives?.