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November 30, 2011

Unlikely new leaders help push family planning: making the economic case to invest

Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health
Hon. Cornelius T. Mwalwanda

 “What have we done to be born into these conditions?”

The question hung in the air in Dakar. It was said by the Hon. Dr. Cornelius T. Mwalwanda, the deputy minister of finance in Malawi, who was imagining what many babies born in developing countries on October 31, 2011, might say if they could share their thoughts.

He was describing his impressions, as part of  an official delegation that visited Mangochi District Hospital in Malawi, which was chosen as the place to welcome the first baby born in Malawi on the day the world’s population reached 7 Billion.

Mwalwanda expressed his concern about the dire conditions of poverty that still face many in his country and the work that still must be done to ensure that babies and mothers have the quality health services that they need and deserve.

Yet, he also spoke with pride about the major progress his country has made in reducing maternal and child mortality in recent years. He attributed the progress to dramatic increases in contraceptive prevalence, from 28 percent in 2005 to 42 percent in 2010.

Mwalwanda was part of a High Level Meeting of Ministers of Health and Ministers of Finance, held during the International Conference on Family Planning this week in Dakar, Senegal. The focus of the meeting was “Realizing the Demographic Dividend for the Health and Wealth of Nations”.  With family planning framed as a strategy to realize a “demographic dividend,” participants discussed the importance of managing population as the engine of economic growth and not as a burden on growth.

Mwalwanda’s presentation was very dramatic, but it also was unusual -- because of the presenter. It’s not often a senior ministry of finance official speaks up as a champion for family planning. But with dynamic presentations from several countries at the Dakar High Level Meeting, these officials are taking a fresh look at how an investment in family planning can be a key to economic development.

Since the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (the Cairo ICPD Agenda), the case for family planning and reproductive health has been made as part of fundamental human rights. Compelling data can demonstrate that family planning is a means to improve women’s health and save the lives of women and children.

Yet, in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the women’s health and women’s rights arguments have not moved the discussion of family planning to the agenda of finance ministries.  Often family planning services have been stalled for lack of government leadership and financial resources.

From my perspective, the Dakar high-level meeting will be remembered as turning point in the road to universal access to family planning. Building on the foundation of the Cairo agenda, the Dakar discussion created a new frame for advocating family planning as critical to both women’s health and to economic development. And it will be advocates in the ministries of finance, such as Malawi’s Mwalwanda, who will help lead the way in the future.

In Senegal