Commentary At Global Leadership Council Meeting, Silence on Family Planning

At Global Leadership Council Meeting, Silence on Family Planning

Suzanne Ehlers

It's time for acknowledgement of the world’s best-kept little secret—family planning saves lives, boosts economic growth, and makes for a safer world.

What Washington insider—or aspiring insider like myself—doesn’t relish the chance to be in the same room with Secretary Clinton, The Honorable Tom Ridge, NBC’s Chuck Todd, and World Bank President Bob Zoellick to talk policy? They were just a few from the lineup at Tuesday’s annual meeting of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), a network of 400 businesses and NGOs dedicated to pursuing “smart power” in foreign policy. Congratulations to their team for pulling off such an impressive forum in a moment of political uncertainty and distraction.

Population Action International (PAI) has long advocated for investments in family planning worldwide because they improve development outcomes. Our work on security, climate change, and aid effectiveness all show how it’s a cornerstone for progress. So to have a coalition like USGLC, which stresses how investments in development and diplomacy go as far as (if not further than) larger investments in defense, is an incredibly powerful platform for a group like PAI.

That said, such a large and diverse coalition will sometimes leave a reproductive health advocate like myself wanting more. Specifically, more mention of women, and more acknowledgement of the world’s best-kept little secret—family planning saves lives, boosts economic growth, and makes for a safer world.

I can hear you already: “There she goes again, the one trick pony from the family planning field.” And I would be embarrassed about trotting out the same, tired truth again and again—if it weren’t for the fact that it is the truth, it is full of energy and potential, and it’s being underutilized.

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Take Elizabeth Littlefield, President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. As part of an afternoon panel discussion, she veered dangerously close to an explicit mention of family planning when she argued that what women really need is “access to… financial services.” I don’t disagree. The economic empowerment and literacy of women, especially poor women, is a huge tool in reducing poverty.

What comes first, however, is “access to family planning.” Because no poor woman, in Zambia or Pakistan, is opening up a bank account anywhere if she’s busy at home taking care of three kids under the age of 5, while pregnant again.

Can mobile banking solve her access problems? Yes, in part, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah was right in talking about the revolution we have witnessed in mobile banking in places like Kenya and Haiti. But he also missed a huge opportunity by not promoting the prowess of his own agency on family planning. USAID is responsible for some of the world’s greatest success stories in this area – successes that allow women to earn income and participate in the economy. For private sector partners, that means more customers, and more money.

Tom Daschle mentioned world population hitting 9 billion by 2050. That is a lot of customers, with the vast majority of them living beyond U.S. borders.  Check out USGLC’s excellent new video that explains this in the words of kids.

To be fair, many speakers talked of how investing in women reaps benefits for the family and community. It would have been disingenuous to not go there, given that Secretary Clinton opened the morning, and is such a powerful advocate on behalf of the world’s women. But investing in women has to take some shape, and what better place to start than with their health? The reality for women the world over is that our health is our reproductive health—and vice versa.

Whenever I think about these larger questions, that’s where I  start: I am married, in my late 30s, with two kids. I don’t abstain; I plan. I had the ParaGard, non-hormonal IUD inserted last summer, as soon after the birth of my second daughter as they would allow.
I hope this doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable—I mean, after all, talk of an IUD from a CEO? How unseemly! But the simple truth is family planning has helped me build my life, and it allows me to work full-time for PAI, where we are dedicated to giving women around the world the chance to build theirs.

The secret is out. Let’s embrace it more—more often, more publicly, and in front of more mixed crowds.

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