Q&A: UNFPA West Africa director on the security benefits of family planning

Mabingue Ngom, West Africa regional director at the United Nations Population Fund. Photo by: UNFPA

Family planning in West Africa has increased in popularity in recent years, as local religious leaders, community groups and health outreach programs have gotten behind the message. This multi-pronged approach is responsible for rising contraceptive use, according to the United Nations Population Fund West Africa Regional Director Mabingue Ngom. Places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Senegal have see an average 2 percent growth in contraceptive prevalence each year, he said.

“Countries are beginning to take family planning very seriously, even within fiscal efforts from their own budget to support family planning related initiatives,” Ngom said.

However, a 2015 United Nations research on trends in contraceptive use still points to Africa as the region with the lowest contraception use, at just 33 percent of reproductive-aged women.

High population growth rates in persist in sub-Saharan Africa, where women average six children in places such as Chad and Mali. Other figures suggest that the population of African youth will increase 42 percent by 2030.

Ngom warns that these growth rates could be the basis for increased radicalism and youth involvement in extremist groups. Though messaging is crucial to progress, Ngom told Devex that family planning needs to remain a priority to avoid future security issues in the region. Here is our conversation with Ngom, edited for length and clarity.

Has UNFPA’s messaging on family planning changed in West Africa over the years?

We have developed a smarter way to articulate some of the issues. Our engagement strategy is important, so we tried working with religious leaders. Innovative approaches in how we engage with the community have been instrumental in terms of helping us make progress. We also make an ongoing effort to bring parliamentarians on board, to push the political dialogue. I’m also proud of how we have actively increased our engagement with youth organizations. We work with community leaders, local NGOs, partners, women’s groups and families to achieve our purpose. It’s really a multi-pronged approach. If you work with one group and ignore the others, you might make progress, but it will continue to be slow.

We had to change the message that the impact is not just private: Family planning impacts individuals, families, communities and governments. We also [discuss] the impact this issue could have on jobs in the next 10 to 20 years. When you take this road, it is very easy for the leaders of Africa, for the young people themselves and for their partners to see why it’s important to do something about women’s access to family planning.

Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest regional population growth rates in the world. How do you explain the importance of this issue to local communities and political partners?

We try to find ways to talk about population growth with youth in a manner that makes sense to them. I tell them that lack of access to family planning could equate to 18 million additional people in the job market every year. I explain about the 88 million young children that go to bed every night without dinner. Beyond the additional classrooms and health centers, we also have to focus on education and talk to governments so they understand the additional fiscal efforts they have to invest in to face the demands of high population growth.

We must also articulate the message around population growth, and the issues of migration, radicalization and violent terrorism. In cases like Boko Haram in Nigeria, for instance, you have 50 million young Africans in the streets, because they don’t have access to classrooms.  

This is certainly a health issue, and one that affects women’s rights, but it’s also a big issue in our fight against poverty. All of our efforts, and those of the government in terms of keeping people out of poverty, are absorbed by high population growth. This affects education and health. Young people who don’t have access to jobs tend to migrate and when they fail, they come back and can radicalize. Then you have an open door for terrorism.

How can a lack of family planning pose security threats to local populations?

High population growth makes fragile countries even more fragile. High population growth is the number one support to radicalization, violent terrorism and migration. If you want to be involved in stopping some of these radical groups, there is no other way than to deal with high population growth.

We need to be strategic with our investments. We need to focus more on prevention, by helping ensure access to family planning and by creating work for the young people in Africa to contain radicalization. The cost of responding to a humanitarian crisis is too much. We have seen recently the cost of meeting the needs of recent crises. Although we have seen financial support, we have also seen the financial gap that still exists in some of these crises. We have to be proactive and smart.

I have seen extraordinary momentum rising behind the agenda, but we need to keep our focus.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.