A Few Thoughts on Diplomacy and Demography
By Jay Gribble, Deputy Director, Family Planning/Reproductive Health, HP+/Palladium
As Secretary of State Tillerson continues his travels through Europe and Asia, he is taking on discussions about a range of issues. I confess that it’s hard for me to imagine the process for developing agendas for these high-level discussions—not to mention all the required levels of protocol. To me, preparing to speak to Congress to defend the foreign assistance budget seems like a much more straightforward prospect. For diplomacy has many facets, and health diplomacy is one of the vital ways to improve global security, while improving the lives of hundreds of millions—if not billions—of people around the world.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard it said that, “your demography is your destiny.” While it’s not always true—occasionally individuals overcome their life’s challenges and end up better off than they started—the lamentable truth is that demography as destiny is the case for most of the world’s population. The situations of young girls who prepare to marry older men are probably not very different from those that their mothers and grandmothers also faced. A boy who is born into subsistence farming is likely to face similar economic prospects that his father faced. Over decades, we have seen improvements in many health indicators—the combination of some basic health interventions coupled with technology and modern medicine—but the challenge of addressing the deep-rooted cultural norms that underpin the “demography-destiny” relationship is far more complex.
One way to begin breaking down the demography-destiny cycle is through health diplomacy, and in particular through family planning. While the experiences of the Asian Tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, for example—serve as a model for accelerating economic growth, one of the underlying reasons for their success was that women started having fewer children. When couples decide to have fewer children, they are better able to concentrate their limited household resources on their smaller families. With more resources per child for health, education, and investment in the family’s livelihood, there is a chance of breaking the demography-destiny cycle, and children have the chance to achieve a fuller potential in life because their parents have been able to invest more in their family’s future. When this happens in a family, the results trickle up to contribute to greater, stronger national economies. Although economic growth is more complex than smaller families, a necessary condition for it to happen is having the resources to invest in the family’s health and well-being.
Global hotspots have continued to fester—and new ones continue to emerge. Military investments have played a key role in keeping these situations in check. But, until the underlying causes of tension are addressed, lasting peace remains elusive. Investments in diplomacy—and especially health diplomacy—are a complementary approach to addressing the complexity of issues that create political hotspots. Sadly, the investments needed to address the underlying social and economic factors are only a drop in the bucket when compared to military investments.
Through promoting health, education, and equitable social norms—forces that contribute to peace and prosperity—I’ve seen that it really does not have to be the case that people’s demography determines their destiny. By addressing what really matters to most people—a healthy family with food, shelter, and the opportunity to improve their lot in life—and by making investments that allow people to achieve their personal potential, diplomacy can be a tool for improving people’s individual and communal situations, while also contributing to the elusive goals of peace and prosperity.