Stephen O'Brien: Challenges and opportunities of family planning and population growth

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Stephen O'Brien, speaks about the challenges and opportunities of family planning and population growth at the International Conference for Family Planning in Senegal.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Stephen O’Brien

Let me start by saying what a privilege it is to be here in Senegal and to be with you all at this important and timely international conference. And particularly to thanks the US Ambassador for hosting this reception and allowing me to give say a few words.

The British Government is proud to be giving more women the choices they crave. To enable them to choose whether, when and how many children they have. We know that 215 million couples who want to delay or avoid a pregnancy do not have access to effective methods of contraception. We believe it is high time their needs were met. We are proud to be playing our part in meeting the unmet need for family planning.

Many countries, especially those with high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa, face considerable challenges - but also, with the right policy choices and investments - potential opportunities.

At the end of last month, the world marked the birth of the 7 billionth person. Some people say that population is too difficult or too sensitive a subject to address or even to talk about.  Many development agencies won’t discuss the causes and consequences of rapid population growth, in case they are accused of removing free choice or forcing individuals to have fewer children. 

I want to make three things crystal clear:

  • First - the British Government is proud to be increasing our investment in voluntary family planning programmes that protect and respect rights.
  • Second, we do not support programmes that coerce individuals and couples to have fewer children. Population control, in the sense of government edicts and targets on fertility levels, has no ethical place in development policy making.
  • And third - we will not shy away from talking about population - about global population growth and its impacts on development.

Where fertility is very high, it’s inevitable that national governments will feel the strain of providing even basic services, and may struggle to cope with increasing demands. Natural resources - water and fuel wood, food and land, are also likely to come under increasing pressure. And poor people, those most reliant on the natural environment for their basic survival, are likely to feel the greatest impact.  Is that right and fair? In meeting the unmet need, we are protecting and respecting rights.

Challenges and opportunities

But I do want to return briefly to the challenges and opportunities we discussed at the high level meeting today, particularly those presented by changing population dynamics, and how they impact on economic growth and development.

The main challenge and opportunity is whether Governments can - or will - achieve the demographic dividend - that small window of additional economic growth which can be achieved from a changing age structure brought about by declining fertility. But there are some warning notes to sound:

  • The demographic dividend is not guaranteed - but the more rapid the fertility decline, the more likely countries that will realise it.
  • Other prerequisites are also required - investments in human capital - especially education and training for girls and women, job creation, open trade policies, incentives to saving and capital accumulation - are all needed.

Expanding access to a comprehensive range of quality contraceptives is one of the most cost-effective investments a country can make to accelerate its demographic transition.

We need to work together, including with private sector and civil society organisations, to ensure quality reproductive health supplies are affordable and accessible - particularly to meet the meet the needs of the poorest and most marginalised women.

All of us attending this Conference agree - women need better access to sexual and reproductive health information, services and supplies, including family planning. Both, short-term, reversible methods for those who want to delay or space a pregnancy, and safe longer acting or permanent methods for those who have decided not to have any more children.

And this also means a greater focus on the needs of young people. This includes adolescent girls who all too often aren’t able to set the terms for when they have sex, when they get married, and when they start having children. We need to work towards a shared vision of a world where women and girls are empowered to make these choices for themselves.

Providing access to family planning to the 215 million women who have a current unmet need is crucial.  The UN’s medium population projection for 2050 is a world population of 9.3 billion - but it is based on the assumption that the family planning gap is closed. 

We must work harder and put renewed emphasis on reproductive health, especially family planning. If we don’t take collective action now and invest in better and more accessible family planning services - then the higher UN projection of around 11 billion people by 2050 begins to look more realistic. And what will that mean for the provision of basic services?  What will that mean for sustainable growth and development?

Of course, the opposite is also true, too. If we do, collectively, get our act together and make real progress towards Universal Access then the lower UN projection seems less out of reach and the other, broader benefits possible through the demographic dividend, are become closer too.

Women at the heart of development

So Universal Access has to be our goal: women want and need it; it saves women’s and children’s lives; it can help reach the Millennium Development Goals and drive broader economic growth and development and it offers incredible value for money. 

The UK is committed at the highest level to providing international leadership to achieve Universal Access to family planning. We are also working to ensure that population is recognised in discussions on development in an open, honest and constructive way. Rapid population growth will only slow and contribute to economic growth and development when women are educated and empowered to take control of their sexual and reproductive lives.

That is why the UK Government has put women and girls front and centre of our development efforts. And that is why we are committed to working with all, including not least our colleagues in the US Government through the Alliance for Reproductive, Maternal and Newborn Health, to improve women’s reproductive health.

Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 29 November 2011