UNFPA chief: New development architecture will mean adaptation, more cooperation

Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of UNFPA. Photo by: J.M. Ferré / UNHCR / CC BY-NC

The architecture of the development agenda and how it will be financed has changed, but the U.N. Population Fund is adapting and looking to new partnerships and innovative financing to continue to promote reproductive health and family planning.

“I think that management of resources and connectivity between countries — south-south cooperation, technology transfer, all of those things — will be key as we go forward,” Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of UNFPA, told Devex in a recent interview.

There is still unfinished business when it comes to the Millennium Development Goals, especially on maternal mortality, and UNFPA will work with governments to encourage them to budget more for family planning and maternal health services, he said.

UNFPA will work on market-shaping activities and look to partner with the private sector to develop new methods of family planning and help take risks to reach more people in need, Osotimehin said.

Devex sat down with Osotimehin at the third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:

As you reflect on the conference in Addis Ababa and look ahead to the sustainable development goal summit in September, what has really made an impression on you?

The architecture of both the development agenda and the financing has changed. And I think everybody now understands and appreciates that going forward, because of universality and because it's not now about the haves and the have not’s. It is about how you use each nation and the uniqueness of each nation to actually be able to do things for themselves. So domestic resources will be key: How do you mobilize them, how do you make sure the idea is sustainable, and how do you address those things so that you can have all of the competing priorities in terms of human capital development and social development and in terms of infrastructure. ... I am pleased to hear, for example, that donors from the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries are still committed to [official development assistance]. But beyond that, we are looking at domestic resource mobilization, we're looking at private sector participation, we're looking at high net worth individuals, and how all this can come together.

I think that management of resources and connectivity between countries — south-south cooperation, technology transfer, all of those things — will be key as we go forward. Now, for UNFPA, given what we do and given our mandate, we are also pleased that we're addressing issues to do with human capital development, gender equality, girls' education, reduction of mortality and [morbidity], reduction of gender-based violence and so on. I am pleased to see this and we are hoping that the indicators that are coming [at September's SDG summit] match in order to go forward with it.

Maternal health is obviously one of the MDGs that has lagged furthest behind, and there is also a significant gap in funding for maternal health and family planning. I just wondered what new approaches will UNFPA and your partners take to really ensure that there is some traction on this issue now as we go toward the SDGs and beyond?

There is a clear understanding that the MDGs is unfinished business and that MDGs on issues like maternal mortality are the ones that we have to ensure that we fold over into the next process.

Specifically talking to reducing maternal mortality, I think that given the understanding we have now, and what we know about how to accomplish that, we will just continue doing what we are doing: building health systems, human resources for health, supply chain management system[s], data sites that inform about progress. But we need to look at how we ensure that more south-south exchange and cooperation ... and how that would amplify the work we do and make sure that we can continue to accelerate.

On family planning, I think it's important to put on the record that when the MDGs came into force in 2000 there was no family planning. It took several years for us to be able to get family planning into the development agenda. So, technically it hasn't done 15 years. But we agree that this is something we can also soldier on about and that we ... have to continue to push government to now budget more to make a difference in the lives of women.

Now there are two other components of that which I think we need to immediately put on the table: First, if you remember in 2012, we had a summit in London on family planning to give greater visibility to it. We have gone since then to continue to forge partnerships between governments, private sector and civil society. And we have seen, for example, that with the private sector we can actually be very creative with particular family planning products, working with the private sector to reduce the costs. And then we shape the market. I think we are going to do far more of that going forward because that's really the way we will be able to provide family planning for the 225 million women in the world who want it and are not getting it today.

What's your call to action for the the private sector in terms of deepening their engagement with UNFPA?

What we would like to see is a greater collaboration with the private sector. ... We are not looking to private sector organizations that will do corporate social responsibility; we are looking to private sector organizations that actually would incorporate these issues in their own DNA, so they see these as part of their own development. So, going forward, we would like the private sector to work with us, to look at new methods of family planning, to improve the existing methods of family planning, to be able to take risks so that we can reach more people — it's all about inclusiveness.

There is a place where I think the private sector can also do incredible things for us. And that is data. Data is so critical for us going forward. You know as well as I do that when I talk about maternal mortality, I'm using estimates. ... But we can improve on that. The new technologies we have today enable us to establish civil registration and vital statistics systems cheaply that also … [allows] countries to be able to use data effectively for planning and implementation. I think the private sector could be a very, very important partner there. I'm looking at the Googles of this world to be able to work with us on this matter, so that we enliven data so its not just about 10 women or 10 men, it's about a characteristic of a person.

How do you decide to get data? How do you ensure that what you see defines a person and defines the human person and defines in such a way that we can then use it to meet the needs of that person and provide dignity? I think there's a whole range of activities there.

UNFPA participated in the launch of the Global Financing Facility in Addis. What are your organization's expectations toward the new facility and how are you going to get involved in concrete terms?

[GFF] is a welcome idea and it gives, particularly at country level, the opportunity that countries are able to mobilize the resources they need for reproductive health, maternal health, child health, adolescent health and rights. ... I think that GFF will be a good thing because it gives a new handle to countries to be able to do what they have to do for women and children and adults.

And will that mean incentivizing governments to take up loans specifically for help on sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Well, within that larger framework, yes. It's interesting: This is the best time to be at UNFPA. Right now, we are working with six Saharan countries and the World Bank, and those Saharan countries have actually taken loans for family planning, taken loans for maternal health, taken loans for the fight against child marriage. And I see that as a potential, and it’s going to grow. And that is really critical for us.

So do you think that these new type of financing mechanisms — blending, impact investment, guarantees, PPPs — is something that UNFPA is really driving toward now?

We are open to that because UNFPA hitherto has been heavily dependent on donors. Donors also have to make choices, however, and we have seen some of them making choices not because they don't believe in what we are doing or they don't trust our results, but because there are other competing nations and entities. So, as we go forward, we also have to diversify our revenue base, but also take advantage of what is out there in the market.

For example, we will be very pleased to see how we can work with countries in the south, looking at south-south cooperation for instance. How can we get Brazil, for example, to work with a country in Africa, reducing costs and making sure that those efficiencies are there? How can we persuade our friends in developed and mature economies to look at sharing their technologies with southern economies to be able to start to manufacture some of the things we use? And it has to happen because at the end of the day the initial cost is what actually drives our ability to meet the needs of people, and if we can work on that without losing the quality of the service we provide, it will be a very good outcome.

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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.