A series of biennial family planning conferences has been taking place for nearly a decade, all in developing countries, at which purveyors of reproductive health services and supplies find a major outlet for their strategies and products. All are after behavior change with a messianic approach to their advocacy and are thoroughly business-minded. Each conference has a theme; this year it is “Investing for a Lifetime of Returns.”
The Fifth International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, November 12-15 with participation of numerous organizations from across the globe, including members of the global, 458-member Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition and various faith-based organizations active in development work.
The primary sponsors of this mega conference are the Government of Rwanda’s Ministry of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health of the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Rwanda was chosen as the host of this year’s conference because it is a poster child for the family planning agenda. The country has promoted contraceptive use, trained health workers in the art of family planning and has shown “success” given that modern contraceptive use soared from 4 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2015, with the fertility rate declining from 5.8 to 4.2 per woman of childbearing age over the same period.
This year’s registrations number over 3,700 from 110 countries, including nearly all African and Western European countries, up from the last conference which was held in Indonesia and attracted over 3,500 participants from 100 countries. The “International Steering Committee” consists of 76 entities ranging from the Abraaj Group (a private equity firm that engages in “impact investing”) to the World Bank, and of course includes the ubiquitous Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, several Planned Parenthoods and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
Their ultimate goal is to make “affordable and quality contraception” to an additional 120 million women in very poor countries by 2020, as is often promoted by United Nations across the globe.
Participants include government ministers, parliamentarians and even a few heads of states – whose countries are the recipients of the family-planning largesse as well as the donors from the super wealthy foundations of the developed world; supportive ministries of rich countries who provide ample foreign aid in support of family planning in all its aspects; and the manufacturers of the products that are dispensed as part of the family planning-reproductive rights agenda.
This conference has an business angle to it as many of the participants are manufacturers of “modern methods” of contraceptives. The foremost providers of all manner of contraceptive medications and devices, including abortion instruments, are both presenting and exhibiting their wares. There are close to 100 exhibitors at the conference, between promoters and producers. The magnitude of the family planning universe should not be underestimated. The global contraceptive market of drugs and devices was estimated to be worth US$22 billion in 2016 and projected to increase to $37 billion by 2025.
Before the formal opening of the conference program there will be an advocacy training meeting for and by faith-based organizations to
“share best practices in family planning advocacy and explore ways to advance the faith community’s role. Facilitators will lead the participants through a strategic planning exercise to develop advocacy plans for the next year. Small groups will discuss country specific activities, identify how to augment the contributions of faith groups, and explore the connection between faith values and family planning. They will engage in dialogue, mutual learning and exchanges in order to increase consensus and ownership.”
On Sunday afternoon, November 11, the schedule calls for an “Interfaith prayer service” followed later by a “Faith celebration” which is not clearly identified.
The role of religious leaders in family planning is the title of one conference session. Mostly it will display how imams have been won over to the family planning cause in such countries as Benin, Cameroun and Guinea. Family planners have indeed made progress in winning over part of the muslim world by targeting and converting their leaders.
Another target audience is youth. Several activities and presentations are devoted to pushing the agenda on those who are supposed to be the primary consumers of family planning products. Hence the strong marketing effort. One side event
“…is targeted at presenting key solutions and suggestions at National, Regional and Global levels for the provision of services and information for empowering young people through ensuring that they have adequate access to SRH/R/FP. It will be done in English and will involve key policy makers in Nigeria and members of UNFPA Senior Expert Advisory Board.”
As with many conferences this one will also be an occasion to showcase new products in the industry. Among the featured innovations will be presentations on “a new male engagement advocacy tool.”
Post abortion care as well as panels on male and female sterilization are also on the agenda.
One of the key presentations involves the Guttmacher Institute and The Lancet. They have formed a strong commission to advance the family planning agenda.
“The Guttmacher-Lancet Commission proposes a comprehensive and integrated definition of sexual and reproductive health and rights, which recognizes that improving health depends on advancing rights.
During this presentation, Commission Co-Chair Ann Starrs will share details from the report, including a list of essential sexual and reproductive health services and a concrete roadmap that countries can take to put them in place, including legal reform and incorporating sexual and reproductive health and rights into universal health care.
Evidence-based and rooted in human rights, this roadmap is intended to serve as a guide as countries move progressively toward adopting the expanded definition of sexual and reproductive health and rights and offering the full set of essential interventions put forth by the Commission.”
The Kigali conference goes well beyond the traditional family planning sphere and goes deep in the realm of sexual pleasure for its own sake. One scheduled presentation headlined “Reproductive rights and gender empowerment” includes a panel on “The pleasure dividend: why we need to talk about pleasure when we talk about family planning and sex.” One of the panelists will present on “Women’s sexual pleasure as a way to promote erotic justice.”
There is even a presentation scheduled on “Entertainment, games and family planning” in which members of various family planning organizations are supposed to use “giant puppets” to spread the message to youth and adolescents in Africa.
A high-level ministerial meeting will focus on the demographic dividend – most likely without analyzing that the rest of the programs essentially will promote just the opposite. Participants include the Gates Institute, the World Bank and UNFPA.
Upon review and reflection on the content, the theme of the conference “Investing for a Lifetime of Returns” may seem a bit odd and contradictory. How does one achieve a “lifetime of returns” with an unborn population? Millions of human beings, whether contracepted or aborted, will never see the light of day nor have a “lifetime.”
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.