How UNFPA rebounded from US funding cuts

Peer educators hand slips to the community that they serve so when a woman presents herself at the UNFPA clinic, they can monitor the success of their work. Photo by: Abbie Trayler-Smith / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — Advocacy and a collection of strong donors have helped remedy the “big blow” that U.S. funding cuts dealt the U.N. Population Fund two years ago, said Arthur Erken, director at UNFPA’s division of communications and strategic partnerships.

A broader recognition of the need to finance sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially in humanitarian settings, has allowed UNFPA to rebound to funding levels it saw prior to U.S. cuts, Erken said.

“We went with donors saying, ‘This has direct consequence — not for us, as an organization, but for people in the field.’”

— Arthur Erken, director, UNFPA division of communications and strategic partnerships

“I think what we have done successfully in recent years is better advocacy for the needs of SRHR and gender-based violence services as part of the initial response to a humanitarian crisis, which wasn’t that big before,” Erken told Devex.

UNFPA took a financial hit of $69 million when it lost the United States as a top donor and policy supporter, shortly after President Trump entered office in January 2017. The U.S. was also the second-largest donor to UNFPA's humanitarian efforts in fragile settings such as Syria and Yemen.

The move was not entirely unexpected: “The week after the [2016 U.S. presidential] election, we already brought our main donors, minus the U.S., to the table and said, ‘Look, this most likely is going to happen. We will probably see a defunding of UNFPA,’” Erken recalled.

UNFPA is still nearly $200 million short of its requested $536 million in humanitarian funding to reach 35 million women, girls, and young people with sexual and reproductive health care in 2019, according to Erken. But it is again operating with $350 million in annual core funding for 2019 — nearly the same amount the agency had before the U.S. cuts.

“We are effective in targeting the traditional humanitarian players to say, ‘Hey, don’t forget. In that crisis there are women who are pregnant. There are women who have been using family planning prior to the crisis.’ We have been better able to articulate and advocate that these services are part of the humanitarian response. Donors have reacted to that,” Erken continued.

SRHR-focused events and pledging conferences, such as She Decides and Women Deliver, have also helped UNFPA find footing for its agenda. In November, UNFPA will host a high-level summit in Nairobi, Kenya, marking the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development, which calls for women’s health and reproductive rights to become a focus of development work. Major political commitments on ending female genital mutilation are expected to come out of the event.

Since 1990, maternal deaths globally have declined by 44%, but an estimated 830 women and adolescent girls still die daily from preventable causes related to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. UNFPA’s strategic plan aims to end all preventable maternal deaths, as well as the unmet need for family planning and gender-based violence, by 2030.

Like previous Republican administrations, the Trump administration cited the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits foreign aid to an organization that is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization, when it withdrew UNFPA funding. The U.N. agency has denied participating in any work of this nature.

In 2016, U.S. support and funding helped UNFPA save the lives of 2,340 women from dying during and after childbirth, and prevent 947,000 unintended pregnancies, as well as 295,000 unsafe abortions, the agency estimates. Funding from more than 100 donors helped avoid a backslide on these issues.

“Others could have followed that [U.S.] example and that did not happen. We kept the donor base, but were able to convince some of these big donors to give a little bit more — Sweden, in particular,” Erken said.

“Of course, there is a big relief. We had a clear strategy to immediately calculate what the immediate impact of a funding cut would be on people. So we went with donors saying, ‘This has direct consequence — not for us, as an organization, but for people in the field,’” Erken continued.

UNFPA’s core funding, responsible for basic organizational costs such as staff salaries, in addition to longer-term advocacy and programmatic work, stood closer to $500 million around 2013 and 2014, and has since declined, according to Erken. Earmarked funding, or funding that countries designate for specific work, has risen during this time, he said.

Norway became the largest core donor to UNFPA in 2019 and one of the largest contributors to earmarked needs. Sweden, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany are among other top donors.

In May, UNFPA co-convened an event with Norway and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for preventing sexual and gender-based violence in conflict settings.

An event like this “shows that we have been better able to position this issue,” Erken said. “If I compare myself with a few years back, we are doing much, much better. There is much more recognition of this already.”

Editor’s note on July 8: This story has been updated to reflect that Norway became the largest donor to UNFPA’s core budget in 2019. Sweden was the largest donor in 2018 and 2017.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.