Anti-'global gag rule' campaign seeks private sector, philanthropic support

Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation. Photo by: Martijn Beekman / Dutch Government / CC BY-SA

The She Decides fund for family planning — launched by the Dutch government as a reaction against the U.S. “global gag rule” — is continuing to attract support ahead of a change of leadership in the Netherlands.

Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation who made headlines after creating the fund in January, told Devex that Europe will be “a beacon of stability” on women’s issues in the coming years. The project aims to replace family planning funding withdrawn by the U.S., and has attracted broad support from governments and other stakeholders.

She expects the new Dutch government to continue to support the initiative after her party suffered heavy losses in last month’s elections, she said. Ploumen is preparing to step down from her government role but will retain her seat in parliament.

Two new government funders — Slovenia and Iceland — have recently joined the campaign, which announced initial resources of $190 million at a conference in early March. The new donors will contribute an additional $190,000 between them, Ploumen said, which will be directed toward nonprofit organizations working in reproductive health.

However, there is a long way to go before the fund reaches its $600 million annual goal — the minimum amount of funding that is expected to be lost from U.S. aid cuts as a result of the global gag rule. Ploumen said that philanthropy, social enterprises and the private sector would play a key role in closing that gap, a challenge that requires new and creative thinking.

She is “optimistic” that the She Decides fund will continue to grow, she said, and has stepped up her efforts to attract broader support for the campaign before she leaves her post.

Hundreds of millions of dollars still needed

Ploumen announced the creation of the She Decides fund in January in response to the reinstatement of the global gag rule by U.S. President Donald Trump. Also known as the Mexico City Policy, the rule prevents non-U.S. NGOs that provide services or information relating to abortion — including counselling and legal advice — from receiving U.S. government funding for any of their activities.

Although the details are not yet clear, NGOs believe it is likely to affect all family planning funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development at a minimum, and potentially billions of dollars worth of additional global health assistance for women’s issues, sexual health, vaccinations, primary health care services and more.

Speaking to Devex at the Skoll World Forum in the U.K. last week, where she took part in a panel on the future of philanthropy, Ploumen said that the international development community would need to “step out of our silos” and work together in new and creative ways to replace those resources.

Philanthropic funding will be crucial to the success of the campaign, she said. Philanthropists accounted for about one-third of the fund’s initial resources, including $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $50 million from an anonymous private donor, and a $10 million personal donation from Christopher Hohn, founder of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

She added that she would be spending a lot of time and effort “inviting other philanthropists to step in” and help bridge the family planning funding gap over the coming year.

A need to ‘step out of our silos’

In addition, Ploumen said she had worked hard to get the private sector more engaged around issues of women’s rights during her time in the Dutch government, but that it could be “tough.”

“I would be very interested in having a conversation on how social enterprise, the private sector and the women’s rights movement can work together to create more scale and more outreach”

— Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation

While she believes she has seen success in terms of improving women’s participation, engaging the private sector on women’s sexual and reproductive rights has been a challenge.

Social enterprises could provide a new way of approaching these issues, she said.

“I would be very interested in having a conversation on how social enterprise, the private sector and the women’s rights movement can work together to create more scale and more outreach,” she said.

The effort would involve more than fundraising: development groups covering women’s issues need to work together more closely and in different ways, and to also work with the private sector and philanthropists, if the She Decides campaign is to be successful, she said.

“We need to step out of our silos in many ways — the HIV/AIDS community and the women’s empowerment community, people working on ending inequality, there is a need to come together more, and I hope the She Decides platform will invite people from those different backgrounds to not only contribute funding, but also to contribute to the conversation,” she said.

Europe as a ‘beacon of stability’ on women’s issues

The Dutch government is a strong supporter of reproductive health rights. In absolute terms, it was the third biggest bilateral donor for family planning services in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, following the U.S. and U.K.

Until the general election last month, Ploumen’s PvdA (Labour) Party had been in government with the VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy), headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

However, the PvdA lost 29 seats in the election, and is unlikely to play a major role in the new government, which is still being formed.

But the outgoing minister said she expects the new government to continue championing the She Decides cause.

She is also optimistic about the forthcoming elections in France later this month, and in Germany in September, in terms of solidifying Europe’s role as a defender of women’s health issues, she said.

“Seeing the huge and broad support this [campaign] got in the Netherlands, I don’t think any new government will be inclined to take support away … Looking at Germany and France and how the polls are, I do think Europe will be a beacon of stability on these issues,” she said.

The German and French governments are facing a challenge from the far-right in the lead up to elections this year, while Rutte’s VVD survived a similar threat in the Netherlands.

The She Decides fund has so far benefited from financial support from countries including Canada, Australia, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark.

However, global family planning efforts were dealt an additional blow last week after the U.S. said it plans to cancel all future funding to the United Nations Population Fund, the main U.N. agency working on family planning and sexual and reproductive health, as Devex reported.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.