Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Hinges on Family Planning
By Onoriode Ezire, Olive Mtema, and Rahal Saeed Korejo
The world's population is expected to climb to nearly 10 billion by 2050—an added 75 million-plus people each year. Left unchecked, that kind of rapid population growth will further strain our natural resources and increase the world's already unmet demand for social and economic systems and safeguards.
We have—over the past several decades—collectively made impressive strides to expand access to family planning; empower couples with the tools and information they need to choose if, when, and how many children to have; and curb population growth. Take for instance that in almost all regions of the world, the majority of married and in-union women are now using some form of contraception. Yet, even with this, population growth is outpacing our ability to meet future generations' health, education, and employment needs.
In short, we've made progress, but to fully reach our potential—and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—we'll need to do more. Increased investments in family planning could mean:
- Fewer maternal and infant deaths
- More resources to meet the nutritional and healthcare needs of existing and future generations
- Less strain on our environment and energy and water stores
- Improved gender equality
- Greater educational and employment opportunities for our youth, which in turn would limit poverty, migration, and immigration, and enhance international security
We can have that future. We can accelerate progress toward achieving the SDGs. But that success hinges on family planning.
Planning our way to the SDGs
In 2016, the SDGs came into force. Adopted by global leaders at a 2015 United Nations Summit, the 17 goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity by 2030. Stronger family planning policies and programs could go a long way toward meeting the goals of this collective action. And, while family planning alone won't solve the world's problems, family planning investments—coupled with other critical policies—could mean the difference between successfully achieving or falling short of almost all of the 17 SDGs—from ending hunger to building international cooperation. So how exactly can family planning help achieve the SDGs? We've seen, first hand, what well-designed, -funded, and -implemented family planning programs can mean for our countries. More so, we see the promise of increasing those investments.
In Nigeria, where women—on average—have five children, over two-thirds of the country is living below the poverty line. Only half of girls—compared to three-fourths of boys—complete primary school. Investments in family planning programs could help to narrow the gender gap, lessen early marriage and pregnancy, and improve maternal and child health.
In fact, evidence suggests that a focus on family planning alone could reduce global maternal mortality by about one-third and that spacing children at least three years apart could reduce Nigeria's infant mortality three times over. For a country with one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates and where more than 1 out of every 8 children die before their fifth birthday, stronger investments in family planning could have an enormous impact in Nigeria. 
Malawi's population is expected to more than triple from 13 million in 2008 to 42 million by 2050. Over half of Malawians are under the age of 18 and the percentage of young women (ages 15–19) bearing children is on the rise. Malawi's youth offers great potential for the country's future economic growth, but tapping that potential requires greater investments in health and education and a slowing of the country's fertility rate.
Results from HP+'s DemDiv model—a tool that helps countries think about how they might achieve faster economic growth by capitalizing on changes in population age structure (i.e., a demographic dividend)—are impressive. Malawi's 2054 per capita gross domestic product is estimated to increase from US$397 (2014) to US$2,148 when family planning is included as part of the model, turning Malawi into a middle-income country around the year 2040.
Pakistan too has a large youth population and the country's natural and other resources are failing to meet its growing needs. One-third of Pakistanis are impoverished and, for the other two-thirds, the likelihood that their household will fall below the poverty line increases by about 22 percent with the addition of just one person.
Strong family planning programs could stem rapid population growth and urbanization and reduce the strain on Pakistan's natural resources. These investments could improve access to clean water and sanitation, avert looming water-use conflicts between Pakistan and India, and lessen the severity of the country's energy crisis. Combining strong family planning programs with investments in education and industry, and a narrowing of the gender gap, would help Pakistan grow the number of people who contribute to its workforce compared with the number of people dependent on the working age population for support. This would go a long way toward improving the country's economic growth and political and civil stability.
How we get there
Achieving the SDGs and other potential gains will require strong commitments to family planning and investments in our youth. Using models like DemDiv to generate evidence that demonstrates the impact of family planning investments is a first step. Working with stakeholders—like we are in Pakistan and Malawi—to strengthen a multisectoral response to population growth is another. Translating that evidence and ownership into policy and action and working with governments to achieve their family planning goals by the most effective, efficient means possible comes next, as does monitoring those policies and actions, and holding governments accountable. It will take work and time, but we can achieve a sustainable future—an alternative to the population growth we're currently facing and the cascading consequences that come along with it. Investing in family planning means giving the world a more measured growth curve and giving countries the chance to put the necessary systems and infrastructures in place to meet the demands of their people, accelerate growth, and make progress toward the SDGs. It's time to get to work—to empower people with evidence and develop nations with the SDGs—and it all hinges on family planning.
Onoriode Ezire is HP+ country director, Nigeria; Olive Mtemwa is HP+ country director, Malawi; and Rahal Saeed Korejo is HP+ country director, Pakistan. Learn more about each of them and the work they're doing to make the case for increased investments in family planning to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.