Experts find family planning a good investment

Bjrn Lomborg
Moreover, because universal access to contraception boosts growth, there are powerful economic arguments for making it a high priority.
Bjrn Lomborg

Political crises, scandals and dysfunction continue to dominate the global news agenda. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many people missed the United Kingdom’s announcement last month that it will spend 600 million pounds (US$779 million) to provide 20 million more women and girls in the developing world with access to family planning.

But the UK government’s decision is a vitally important one. Currently, hundreds of millions of women are unable to choose the number, timing and spacing of their children. Moreover, because universal access to contraception boosts growth, there are powerful economic arguments for making it a high priority.

In developing countries, 214 million women of reproductive age who want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern contraceptive method. Nearly one quarter of women in Africa, and one in 10 in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean have an unmet need for family planning.

Four years ago, world leaders pledged to achieve universal access to family-planning services by 2030. Yet, in 2017, the latest year for which data are available, global donor funding for such services was around US$1.27 billion — well below the peak of US$1.43 billion in 2014. Clearly, more governments need to follow the UK’s example.

The Copenhagen Consensus Center research used by the UK government shows why we should strive for universal access to modern contraception. In the study, Hans-Peter Kohler and Jere Behrman of the University of Pennsylvania estimate that it would cost about US$3.6 billion per year to provide family-planning services to those 214 million women who lack access.

‘Demographic dividend’

Closely spaced and ill-timed pregnancies and births contribute to high infant mortality rates, while evidence suggests that women who have more than four children face an increased mortality risk. Kohler and Behrman estimate that achieving universal access to contraception would result each year in 640,000 fewer newborn deaths, 150,000 fewer maternal deaths, and 600,000 fewer children losing their mothers. Quantifying these health benefits in economic terms, Kohler and Behrman find that every dollar spent on improving access to contraception generates US$40 worth of good to society.

That is impressive enough. But poor countries with greater access to contraception also stand to benefit from a “demographic dividend” — specifically, the accelerated economic growth that can result from an increase in the ratio of working-age people to dependents.

In least-developed countries, more than 40 percent of the population typically is under the age of 15, and depends on working-age adults for financial support. But when women can choose when and how often to become pregnant, they are more likely to have fewer children, and are better able to achieve their desired family size. When birth rates fall, the number of dependents shrink relative to the working-age population. With fewer people to support and, eventually, more working-age people, a country has a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth.

Furthermore, having smaller families allows parents to invest more in each child. Children with fewer siblings tend to stay in school longer, for example. And with fewer children in each age cohort, each child also will be able to use more of society’s capital, making them more productive.

In fact, an expert panel of economists assembled by the Copenhagen Consensus Center, including two Nobel laureates, concluded that universal access to family planning — along with freer trade, better nutrition, immunization, and investment in preschool education — is one of the most powerful development goals that the world could pursue.

Now it is incumbent on other governments and donors to match the UK’s financial commitment to making family planning more widely available.

Achieving universal access to contraception would save and improve millions of lives, and put societies on a faster track to shared prosperity.

With so much at stake, the world should devote far more attention and resources to this goal.

Bjørn Lomborg, a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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