Let’s fully fund international family planning on World Population Day
There are now 7.8 billion of us, on a planet that many already deemed overpopulated half a century ago when we were at a mere 3.5 billion. Our rate of growth is slowing, but the world is still growing by over 80 million people a year. A number that large can be hard to truly conceptualize, so think about it like this: We are adding the equivalent of another New York City every 38 days. A new Los Angeles every 18 days. This massive growth isn’t concentrated within one urban beltway, but it’s not spread out evenly across the globe either — more than a third of population growth in the last year occurred in sub-Saharan Africa alone. And nearly all (99 percent) of the population growth between 2020 and 2021 happened in less developed countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America where infrastructure, institutions and local environments are already often strained.
So, at the same time that some people in high-income countries are warning of a looming worker shortage and an impending population collapse (U.S. birth rates are continuing to fall to record lows each year, with the trend being most pronounced among teens and women in their early 20s), many low- and middle-income countries are trying to figure out how they can improve life for their current populations and for the people who will be born in the coming years and decades. All of these people will need food, fresh water, housing, health care, education and employment. They’ll also need local environments that provide them with clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, lumber to build with and burn as fuel, and healthy soil for growing crops and vegetation for grazing livestock. And they’ll need the ability to adapt to a changing climate. All of these needs are more challenging to meet in the context of rapid population growth.
There are an estimated 218 million women in developing regions who want to prevent pregnancy but have an unmet need for contraception. The global pandemic has almost certainly made this worse. The UN estimates that COVID-19 has interrupted access to family planning for 20 million people in the Americas alone.
The world’s failure to address this unmet need has enormous costs to women, to families, to communities, and to the entire world. This failure makes it harder to reduce maternal and child mortality. It makes it harder to reduce poverty and increase educational and economic opportunities. It makes it harder to ensure that everyone everywhere has the food they need to thrive. It makes it harder to get clean water and sanitation services to all. It makes future pandemics of zoonotic viruses more likely. And it makes it harder to mitigate the damage we’re doing to our climate and to adapt to the new world we live in.
It is long past time for the United States to step up and lead the world in making universal access to family planning and comprehensive reproductive health care a global priority. All it takes is political will and, frankly, a modest investment in these programs around the world.
Five years after the first World Population Day, the nations of the world met in Cairo, Egypt, to pledge real action to address the challenges posed by rapid population growth. Wealthy countries and less developed ones alike promised to make the needed investments in family planning programs, girls’ education and maternal health. The United States didn’t only join in, we led the way. Yet, in the years following that historic meeting, we have failed to follow through sufficiently, although President Biden is making positive efforts.
The United States enjoys its position as the world leader. Let’s encourage our elected representatives in government to be leaders in the investment in international family planning. Make no mistake: Family planning is an investment. Every dollar spent on international family planning saves three dollars in pregnancy-related and newborn care. Let’s show other donor countries that we can prioritize reproductive health and population stabilization by delivering on the promises we made in Cairo. Doing so will improve security, stability and survival, especially among the world’s most marginalized populations. On this World Population Day, let’s commit to making life better for the 218 million women with an unmet need for family planning, for their children, and for their communities and countries. Let’s fully fund international family planning.
Marian Starkey is the vice president for communications at Population Connection, a non-profit organization that raises awareness of population challenges and improving global access to family planning and reproductive health care.