“Family planning is to maternal survival what a vaccination is to child survival,” said Johns Hopkins professor Amy Tsui, quoting Khama Rogo of the World Bank, at the Woodrow Wilson Center event Maintaining the Momentum: Highlights From the Uganda International Conference on Family Planning
on March 16. Rogo made the strong statement during the landmark November 2009 conference in Kampala, which has renewed interest in family planning and reproductive health among African leaders and development partners. Rhonda Smith of the Population Reference Bureau and Sahlu Haile of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation joined Tsui, the director of The Bill & Melinda Gates Institute of Population & Reproductive Health, to discuss their impressions of the Kampala conference and what it means for the future of family planning in Africa.
“An event that happened at the right time”
“Kampala was the work of a community,” said Tsui. More than 50 organizations—the U.S. Agency for International Development, the UN Population Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Gates and Packard Foundations—convened in Uganda, which was chosen not only for its central location, but also to highlight the country’s soaring unmet need for contraception—41 per cent—and rapid 3.1 percent population growth rate.
Panels focused on key issues in family planning, including:
The conference also made a splash in the media. “If you want it to get a lot of media hype, you have to have someone ready to say ‘I’m giving money to X,’” said Tsui. Thus, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new three-year, $12 million Advance Family Planning project to advance reproductive health and family planning efforts in regions with the greatest need—particularly, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The conference generated palpable excitement and renewed energy for family planning. Uganda was “an event that happened at the right time,” said Tsui. Conference organizers, who have been asked to replicate it in other parts of the world, are already looking for locations for 2011. The conference was not just a success in theory, but also in action, and several developments emerged in its wake:
Uganda on the Move
Rhonda Smith’s presentation “Uganda on the Move”—which she also presented in Uganda—is a prototype of the Population Reference Bureau’s new ENGAGE (Eliminating National Gaps—Advancing Global Equity) project, which is designed to “engage policy audiences and promote policy dialogue around issues of high fertility and high unmet need for family planning and their costs, consequences, and solutions,” she said. By using stunning, innovative graphics and avoiding confounding technical terms, ENGAGE’s products are designed to reach non-technical policy audiences and influential decision-makers.
As one of the Uganda conference’s most talked about presentations, “Uganda on the Move” wows audiences with visuals created using Hans Rosling’s Trendalyzer software. The presentation shows that although Ugandans are increasingly healthier, have a higher life expectancy, and are more educated, maternal health remains in jeopardy. Tellingly, 46 percent of pregnancies in the country are unplanned, 6,000 women die each year from complications related to pregnancy, and 1,200 women die each year from undergoing unsafe abortions.
Maternal deaths, however, do not tell the whole story: For every one woman dying, Smith said, 20-30 women suffer from short-term disability, which places a major strain on economic growth. From 2004 to 2013, maternal death will cost Uganda US$350 million in lost productivity; and disability will cost and additional US$750 million.
What Next? The African Perspective
“After 10 years of virtual clandestine work, [family planning] is just coming out of the closet,” said Sahlu Haile. Over the last few decades, family planning advocates have been struggling to: 1) keep family planning alive—without it being affected by political considerations 2) make family planning a health priority, without any associations with rights violations; and 3) be in solidarity with pioneering organizations of the family planning movement, like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, that were victims of discriminatory funding decisions.
The Uganda conference changed all that, said Haile. In Uganda, conference attendees were “talking about family planning…not reproductive health, not maternal/child health.” This, he said, was “probably the single most important lesson…that I took from the Kampala conference.”
Following the conference, Haile said that African government officials stressed family planning as a priority at meetings in Ethiopia and Nigeria—the first time he had witnessed such high-level attention to family planning from those countries in his 30-year career.
In Ethiopia, African leaders pledged to:
In Nigeria, West African ministers of health agreed that making abortion safe was essential to reducing maternal mortality. Across the board, at each meeting, family planning was discussed as “an investment, not an expenditure,” said Haile.
- Prioritize family planning, since family planning is one of the most cost-effective development investments;
- Ensure access to contraception, as 40 percent of maternal deaths are associated with unwanted pregnancies; and
- Integrate MDG 5b, universal access to reproductive health, into their international development plans and budgets.
Haile credited the Kampala conference for spurring these efforts. In December, he joined a task force of 14 Ethiopian organizations to plan the next steps. They will jointly develop research capacities, generate evidence, and strengthen monitoring and evaluation practices, especially with regard to integrating population, health, and environment efforts. In addition, they will engage with wider audiences via new tools such as the blog RH RealityCheck and Gapminder Foundation’s Trendalyzer program.
Haile believes we need to “work together to encourage national-level efforts…to make sure family planning stays where it is now and make sure it is not abandoned.”
To be a part of the new online family planning community, join the Kampala Conversation.
Photo 1: A women and her children in Jinja, Uganda. Courtesy Flickr user cyclopsr. Photos of Amy Tsui, Rhonda Smith, and Sahlu Haile courtesy of Dave Hawxhurst, Woodrow Wilson Center.