Family planning only part of 'all-of-society' SDG approach — UNFPA chief

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, United Nations undersecretary-general and U.N. Population Fund executive director. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / United Nations

Family planning is crucial to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, as a crosscutting issue that impacts targets on health, gender, youth and more.

In short, it cannot be isolated as a stand-alone problem simply because it encompasses all sectors of society, according to United Nations Undersecretary-General and U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

“The all-of-society approach is exactly what the SDGs are about,” Osotimehin explained in an interview with Devex associate editor Richard Jones on the sidelines of the recent International Conference on Family Planning in Nusa Dua, Indonesia.

Below are more excerpts from that conversation with the UNFPA chief, including how the U.N. agency’s work on family planning has been affected by the refugee crisis.

Family planning has been described as one of the best investments towards achieving the SDGs in terms of saving and improving lives? How are you working to ensure that it is implemented not only in health and gender equality circles, but cutting across all sectors and intervention areas towards the implementation of Agenda 2030?

If Agenda 2030 is to succeed, the main engine of growth is going to be our young people. Of this group, the most important is the 3-year-old girl from Arusha, Tanzania. We must enable her to go to school, stay at school, receive comprehensive education — not just numeracy and literacy — including comprehensive sexuality education, protecting her rights so she doesn’t get married off at 15 or undergo female genital mutilation, and bringing her to potential maturity at 18-22 when she can decide what job or studies she wants to do, give her access to credit if she wants to start a business, decide who she wants to marry and how many children she wants to have — if she wants to marry and have children. If we achieve this, then Agenda 2030 is achieved.

How are you avoiding working in silos at the U.N. level? And if family planning is truly one of the most effective and cost-effective investments towards the SDGs, are you winning the argument?

There’s no way you can do what I described without working together. I chose the example of the girl from Arusha because you cannot move on all of those goals, without also making progress on the goal of society. The all-of-society approach is exactly what the SDGs are about.

Sexuality education and access to services is something that many governments do not want to address because there are tensions, but that’s where civil society, including peer-led youth organizations, comes in — to provide not only services, but information. This can remove the problem of youth not wanting to go to service delivery centers.

In South Africa, for example, abortion is legal but there are still illegal abortions [taking place] because kids don’t want to go to a hospital and come face to face with a midwife who’s their auntie, or lives in their neighborhood so they still go to these backwater places where they shouldn’t go. I think there’s therefore a need for a coordinated system to enable young people to have access to information and services.

How can UNFPA and its partners intensify efforts to ensure that no one is left behind?

Sustainability comes from systems that work in-country, it doesn’t come from us. If Ebola broke out in Ethiopia or Rwanda, we would not see what happened in [West Africa] because they have built adequate systems. You first have to build systems so we will go and work with governments to build these systems — we don’t have the money to do any more than that, but we have technologies, expertise and knowledge that we can share. That’s what we bring to the table.

“How do we ensure that we can engage? It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of passion. You cannot do it just by video message, you have to be there, sitting on the ground with them and talking to them.”

— Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund and U.N. undersecretary-general

In 2014 alone, UNFPA provided family planning supplies targeting nearly 21 million women, men and adolescents in humanitarian settings. How does your approach to family planning differ in humanitarian settings and what changes is UNFPA putting in place in light of recent migration crises?

Our humanitarian response has grown [but] what makes it unique is that […] we need to be able to adapt to these [precarious] situations to be able to reach [the migrants], and then supply the services on a continuous basis. That’s what we’re doing as UNFPA.

In addition to providing education to women and girls about protecting themselves against sexual violence, providing safe spaces for women and girls around the camp, we ensure that we provide family planning services and more. We also talked to men who were coming to consecrate marriages for 13-year-old girls and educating them that they cannot do this. In addition, we do work with boys about gender-based violence to respect the bodies of women as equals.

How do we ensure that we can engage? It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of passion. You cannot do it just by video message, you have to be there, sitting on the ground with them and talking to them. It’s not only going to be once, it’s going to be several times and they will come back and ask you things. But once they have your confidence they will do whatever needs to be done, because they then know that you have no agenda.

Interested in more stories on migration issues? Stay tuned for our upcoming conversation, Across Borders, this March where Devex and partners amplify the discussion on development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more.

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About the author

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.