U.S. Foreign Assistance

Population, Family Planning and Presidential Priorities

Jeffrey Locke's picture

Over the last week, the American people
and financial markets around the world watched as Congress debated an
eye-popping $700 billion dollar economic rescue for the American economy. 
Lost amidst the media’s coverage of the rescue plan was another Congressional
decision — to punt to the next President and new Congress tough decisions
on funding for most FY 2009 government programs, including foreign assistance. 

As World Watch Institute’s latest magazine issue
“Population Forum”

illustrates, concerted foreign assistance that emphasizes international
family planning programs is going to be required to address the nexus
of population issues that have emerged — environmental degradation,
climate change, as well as poverty, security and the health of women
and children.  However, having worked in Togo, West Africa, an
area of the world where hundreds of thousands of women already fail
to have their family planning needs met, I’m left to wonder:
if the next Administration turns away from our obligations overseas,
will foreign assistance and developing world women be the first casualties
of the economic downturn?

This past week I attended a presentation
at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars that highlighted
the launching of
“Population Forum.”  Featuring remarks by Robert Engelman,
Vice President for Programs at World Watch Institute; Thomas Prugh, editor of World Watch Institute;
Sean Peoples of the Woodrow Wilson Center; and PAI’s own Vice President of Research,
Karen Hardee; the event provided a forum to discuss the magazine’s
focus on population and why issues such as population growth, age structure
and youth bulges have become increasingly relevant to environmental
issues.

Already prominent in discussions within
national security circles (as demonstrated by PAI’s own Shape of Things to Come), demographic characteristics have now become
salient for how environmental organizations approach environmental degradation,
and efforts to mitigate global climate change.  World Watch magazine
editor Thomas Prugh, in acknowledging that “the planet faces a range of grave and
interlinked challenges”

that harbor serious consequences for ignoring population issues, left
this question to policymakers: “What should be the response by the
developed world?”

Over the last four decades, one of
the responses by the U.S. Congress has been to provide funding for voluntary
family planning programs overseas – which have succeeded in reducing
average fertility rates among developing world married women from about
six children per woman to three children.  This success is despite
a downward trend since 1995 in funding – nearly
$100 million — a 39 percent reduction (when adjusted for inflation)
that coincides with President Bush withholding
nearly $200 million in funding for the United Nations Population
Fund
and his Administration’s implementation of
the Global Gag Rule in 2001
.

Fortunately, this past July the U.S.
House and Senate Appropriations Committees proposed historic funding increases for these crucial programs, and acknowledged
the role that high rate of population growth plays in contributing to “competition for limited resources, environmental
degradation, malnutrition, poverty and conflict.”
  While Congress was unable to enact these
funding increases in time for the new fiscal year on October 1, the continuing resolution passed ensures that Federal agencies and programs
will continue to operate at current levels – possibly until the foreign
assistance priorities of the next President are revealed – which, as
my colleague Craig Lasher notes, “matters greatly.” 

These priorities will have a direct
bearing on over 200 million women in the developing
world
, who already want
to space or limit their childbearing but live without modern contraception. 
Having lived among some of these women who lack access to contraception
in Togo, West Africa, a country that has lacked a steady USAID presence
for years, I’ve seen what can happen to women in the developing world
if either Presidential nominee decides to turn away from family planning
programs. 

I’ve seen scores of women seeking
contraception, with their babies strapped to their backs, waiting in
my village’s health clinic from 6 a.m. until nightfall, only to have
to return the next day or the day after that, to procure elusive contraception. 
I’ve seen girls left off the rolls of school enrollment, married off
as children and twice pregnant by 15.  I’ve seen large numbers
of young males lacking opportunity — lacking an adequate education
to get a job, lacking sufficient land to farm, angry at their government
for change — migrating from Togo to feed their young and growing families.

The situation for women and families
in Togo and in much of the developing world represents the stark choice
in foreign assistance priorities for the next President:  does
the U.S. expand family planning programs into nations
that have high rates of unmet contraceptive need
, or does the U.S. scale back family planning
assistance, as the U.S. has done
with serious consequences in the Philippines

and Kenya

For Republican Presidential nominee
John McCain, his recent debate with Senator Barack Obama highlighted
his belief to cut spending and institute a “spending freeze” on programs deemed not vital – leaving
only entitlement, Veterans Affairs and defense programs unfrozen. 
Prior to the debate however, Senator McCain stated that a McCain-Palin Administration would give priority
to efforts to improve maternal and child health

As family planning is recognized in public health as a crucial element
(along with health clinic access and obstetric care) in improving the health of the mother and child – would international family planning programs
be spared from Senator McCain’s proposed spending freeze?

At the same debate with Senator McCain,
Senator Obama stated that due to the financial crisis, as President
he would have to prioritize and “eliminate programs that don’t work
and make sure programs we do have are more efficient and cost less.”
Senator Obama went on to acknowledge that “there are some programs that
are very important that are underfunded.”

Will U.S. international family planning programs qualify as a program
that an Obama-Biden Administration would find additional resources for?

Despite decades of success in creating healthier
families and a healthier planet
,
we in the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and environmental communities are now left to wait and
see whether international family planning programs meet the foreign
assistance and funding priorities of the next President.  As my
Togolese brethren would say, “On verra” – we will see. 

Originally published on RH Reality Check.

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