How family planning can help save cheetahs

A cheetah in open savanna in Kenya. Photo by: Andrey Naumov / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Conservationists and development practitioners may not have always seen eye to eye, but a new partnership between a cheetah conservation charity and a network of reproductive health NGOs is making the case for why these groups need to work more closely together.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for greater integration and collaboration among all development sectors, including actors working in the health and environment spheres. The intersection of those two sectors is a particular challenge in Africa, where the population is projected to quadruple to more than 4 billion by 2100. The boom will put enormous pressure on dwindling natural resources, negatively impacting wildlife and the environment.

Rural areas — where family planning and medical services are least accessible, and fertility rates highest — will likely face the greatest impact on natural resources. An estimated 214 million women in lower-income countries want effective contraception but are unable to access it, and there is an estimated $20 billion annual funding gap for reproductive health services in developing countries. Furthermore, there is a correlation between countries with the highest unmet need — as identified by the Family Planning 2020 campaign — and the largest areas of wilderness, as well as iconic and endangered species.

“When population growth impacts the health of local ecosystems, and when communities rely on those ecosystems for ... sustainable livelihoods, barriers to people accessing family planning services are both a health and conservation issue.”

—  David Johnson, chief executive officer of the Margaret Pyke Trust

As a result, there is an “utterly obvious geographical overlap” in the areas of most concern to conservationists and to reproductive health advocates, according to David Johnson, chief executive officer of the Margaret Pyke Trust, which runs the Population & Sustainability Network, a group of NGOs working to promote reproductive rights for sustainable development. To date, however, the overwhelming majority of funding is still going toward single sector interventions.

Johnson is working to raise awareness and attract funding for integrated population, health, and environment — or PHE — programs, combining improvements in family planning provision with environmental conservation and natural resource management, in order to simultaneously improve health and conservation outcomes.

“When population growth impacts the health of local ecosystems, and when communities rely on those ecosystems for their food and water security, and sustainable livelihoods, barriers to people accessing family planning services are both a health and conservation issue,” Johnson explained.

“When improvements in reproductive health and conservation-focused sustainable livelihoods are combined, everyone wins,” he added.

As part of this PHE drive, the Cheetah Conservation Fund recently joined PSN and co-published a policy paper earlier this year with the Margaret Pyke Trust, exploring integrating rights-based family planning approaches into cheetah conservation programs.

“We are all working towards the same goal — healthy communities and a healthy planet. For CCF, that means restoring the natural balance allowing humans and cheetahs to prosper,” Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the fund, told Devex.

While PHE has existed as a concept since the mid-1980s, albeit under a variety of different names, very few programs have been able to attract financing, and very few organizations have sought to implement the approach. This is due in part to conservationists and reproductive health actors being unlikely partners, with very different funders and expertise.

Long-held sensitivities around anything that might be seen as promoting “population control” have also proved an obstacle to securing funding for PHE programs, according to Harriet Davies-Mostert, head of conservation at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, another member of PSN.

According to advocates, however, these concerns are fading and there is now a greater understanding of what PHE programs can offer.

While acknowledging that the data currently available is limited, Johnson said that “programs integrating family planning improvements with conservation actions have been demonstrated to have greater conservation, health, and gender outcomes than traditional, single-sector health or conservation programs — so everyone benefits.”

This is possible because most PHE programs offer combined community training — covering environmentally friendly livelihoods alongside reproductive health — so the messaging around these concepts reaches both men and women. Engaging men, who can be a significant barrier to women using contraception, is easier when project actions are broader than reproductive health alone. Equally, a higher involvement of women in discussions around livelihoods and sustainable farming can improve gender equality, Johnson explained.

Conservation NGO Blue Ventures has integrated family planning into its work with coastal communities in Madagascar since 2007.  An evaluation revealed that the combined program effectively expanded contraceptive access to previously hard-to-reach communities while also promoting sustainable management of marine resources.

Cheetahs and family planning

As a first step in the advocacy push, the Cheetah Conservation Fund and Margaret Pyke Trust teamed up to publish a policy paper advocating for joint work on conservation and family planning. Across Africa, the cheetah population has decreased by 92 percent over the last century, to the point that only around 7,100 adult and adolescent cheetahs remain in the wild. The species is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“For animals like the cheetah to thrive, the human populations that live alongside them must be healthy and strong, with ample resources to sustain them.”

— Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of CCF

The vast majority of cheetahs live outside of protected areas and their decline is in large part due to encroachments on their natural habitats by livestock, as well as loss of prey, and illegal poaching and trade, according to IUCN. Conservation strategies such as putting cheetahs in protected areas do not always help, CCF’s Marker added, since “cheetahs tend to get forced out by larger or more aggressive predators that steal their prey and kill their young.”

As a result, alternative approaches are needed. In Namibia, for example, 90 percent of cheetahs live on commercial and communal farmlands, “so the best way we can help them is to educate the people here about the species, to encourage people to live with them,” Marker explained.  

“The health and prosperity of people and of wild species are tied together. For animals like the cheetah to thrive, the human populations that live alongside them must be healthy and strong, with ample resources to sustain them,” she added.

While CCF has “always partnered with rural communities to empower and improve their lives,” the collaboration with the Margaret Pyke Trust aims to intensify these efforts by incorporating family planning education and training.

“As the links between conservation, population growth, and barriers to communities accessing sexual and reproductive health services … have become increasingly apparent, we knew it was time we took these links into account in our organizational strategy,”  Marker explained.

In turn, CCF can offer health actors its extensive experience working with remote and hard-to-reach populations, she said: “When the health sector talks about meeting the ‘hard to reach,’ these are the people we already work with.”

At the same time, developing projects that also focus on health could open doors to a broader range of funders — those with a thematic focus on health, gender, and development for example — than conservation groups such as CCF would traditionally appeal to.

On the back of the report, the Margaret Pyke Trust and CCF hope to raise funding for a pilot project in Namibia, the country with the largest cheetah population. A PHE program would include family planning training in clinics and community education on rights to health care, contraception myths, and choices. Family planning staff would then link up with CCF staffers already running livelihood trainings with communities, in order to deliver integrated workshops, Johnson explained.  

However, Johnson was clear that family planning is not a “conservation panacea,” and population is only one of many conservation issues. Nonetheless, “in some areas, population growth ... due to poor health care provision, is a key conservation challenge.” In those cases, he said, “an obvious element of any development response is improving health services.”

A turning point?

Prominent family planning NGOs, including Marie Stopes International, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and Pathfinder International, as well as major conservation organizations, such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust and The Nature Conservancy, have endorsed PHE and run some programs. However, the numbers are still low, with Johnson estimating the total number of projects run at less than 50. Most of those have been in East Africa, with a focus on marine ecosystems. Johnson would like to see more programs in terrestrial ecosystems.

The lack of projects means there is also a lack of data and evidence about the efficacy of PHE programs, which in turn makes it hard to attract funding, Johnson said. That point was highlighted in a 2015 landscaping review by the United States Agency for International Development, which looked at 35 concluded and ongoing PHE programs. It found that while they did appear to show improved outcomes in both family planning and environmental practices, much more evidence was needed.

Cara Honzak, a senior adviser on PHE at Pathfinder International, which runs projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Niger, said most of their work has been funded by private donors and foundations including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, as well as USAID. While PHE has existed as an approach for decades, Honzak said she had noticed a “re-energized conversation” taking place among donors and actors in recent years, as part of a broader “renewed and revitalized” approach to integration as pushed by the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, major challenges remain, the biggest of which is the “complexity” involved in funding, implementing, and measuring PHE programs, Honzak said. “Integration is by definition complex and that’s harder to fund and implement — and doesn’t lead to … easy answers.”

The solution is to “take the complexity and make it more digestible,” Honzak said. This may require funders and practitioners to step outside of their comfort zone and “move away from hard and fast quantitative evaluation methodologies” used in the past, she said.

The term PHE may also be problematic, Honzak added, since it does not emphasize the centrality of gender within PHE programming. Gender-inclusive, participatory approaches are especially important when considering the environmental programs PHE engages with around rights and resources, since unless women are included, such programs can aggravate existing gender disparities instead of improving them, she warned.

“Integration is by definition complex and that’s harder to fund and implement — and doesn’t lead to … easy answers.”

— Cara Honzak, a senior adviser on PHE at Pathfinder Internationa

For Honzak, integrated family planning, women’s rights, and environmental conservation programs can be transformative across many sectors and geographies. She wants to see the conversation broaden to include actors and funders from other sectors such as climate, agriculture, and food security. This is already happening, she said, with programming to build resilience to climate impacts, even when conservation is not an issue.

“I would like to see the conversation continue to broaden in this direction. PHE is a very useful tool for advocacy and communication, and it is also an approach that can be adapted to many local contexts,” she said.

PHE is “relevant across any landscape where you see rapid population growth, in which you also see the concurrent needs of women and youth not being met and massive gender disparity,” she added.

Moving forward

Historic rights transgressions have led to negative associations with programs perceived to be promoting contraception, presenting a challenge to PHE advocates. This is largely due to forced sterilization programs in numerous countries around the world, including India and China. Some are also uncomfortable with the fundamental premise behind PHE, which they see as presenting population growth as a problem and that local communities are to blame for environmental damage.

While all the PHE advocates who spoke to Devex were clear they support rights-based, voluntary family planning, they admitted some donors and implementers are still hesitant.

EWT’s Davies-Mostert described the debate as polarized and sensitive. “We all know [if] there are more people then we use more resources … but any discussion about trying to provide support for family planning is often seen as being anti-poor or anti-poverty.” PHE programs are about “providing choices to women … not about getting people to have fewer babies,” she added.

Integrated programs such as PHE reflect the fact that “the challenges and issues people face in their daily lives are complex,” Davies-Mostert said, adding that layering approaches, such as livelihoods, conservation, and family planning, is more likely to lead to greater impact. It also makes logistical sense since NGOs can share resources, she said.

Funding structures within many donor agencies and foundations is part of the problem, according to Johnson, who said many are “institutionally unable to fund cross-sectoral programs,” as well as being culturally wedded to single-sector programs.

But it is not just donors who think in silos, Johnson added. Practitioners within the health and conservation sectors tend to be insular and reluctant to talk to those outside of their sectors.

Speaking specifically about the family planning sector, of which he is a member, Johnson said: “I think many family planning advocates have spent too long telling family planning advocates that family planning is a good thing. We know that. To broaden the reproductive health alliance we need to talk to those who don’t already know this; we also need to talk to conservationists, for instance.”

The way health actors talk to conservationists also needs to change.

“So far, we haven’t effectively highlighted how improvements in reproductive health fit into the frameworks which conservationists report on, or the links between reproductive health and conservation priorities,” Johnson said, adding that health workers need to “learn the language of conservation groups.”

To help with this new messaging, the Margaret Pyke Trust recently hired Robert Engelman, renowned environmental and demographic advocacy expert, as a consultant. Engelman has worked for reproductive health agencies including the United Nations Population Fund and PAI, and is also a former president of environmental think tank the Worldwatch Institute.  

Together, they are working on developing a “major report,” to come out later this year, Johnson said, which will make the case for PHE alongside calls to action for donors and implementers.

If the challenge of persuading funders and advocates “to do health and conservation together” can be overcome, said Davies-Mostert, it offers the “chance to unlock greater funding … and deliver more holistic approaches with potentially bigger impacts.”

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    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.