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International Development

Volume 729: debated on Monday 11 July 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what priority they are giving in international development to population issues and to reproductive health and rights.

My Lords, the UN estimates that the world’s population will pass 7 billion this October. Most of the growth will be in high-fertility developing countries. Meeting the need for family planning and maternal and new-born health services would help avert 390,000 maternal deaths and over 50 million unintended pregnancies. The Government are playing a leading role and will enable at least 10 million more women to use modern methods of family planning by 2015.

My Lords, I am grateful for that positive Answer from the noble Baroness. Does she accept that it is very important to address the unmet need of more than 200 million couples who would like to be able to use contraceptive methods but do not have them available? Does she agree that funds invested in this field provide a return many times over, not only financially but also, more importantly, in terms of human well-being?

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right. If we fail to respond to the unmet need for family planning, the consequences of rapid population growth will impact on us all. Reducing unplanned births and family size would save on public sector spending on health, water and social services and reduce pressure on scarce natural resources. Reducing unintended pregnancies particularly among adolescents in developing countries would improve their educational and employment opportunities. This would contribute to improving the status of women, increasing family savings, reducing poverty and inspiring economic growth.

The noble Baroness will know that Afghanistan, in particular, has faced civil war and political unrest for many decades. Forty-two per cent of the population live on less than $1.25 a day and three in five children are malnourished. Nevertheless, the fertility rate is 6.6 births per woman, many of them very young girls. With a rapidly rising population, only 15 per cent of women in Afghanistan can access contraception. Will she ensure that our Government’s programme to Afghanistan reflects these facts and prioritises maternal health and family planning?

I am most grateful to my noble friend for raising these issues. She is aware that at the heart of our programmes is the maternal health of women and girls. We have focused on ensuring that they receive education and the services that improve their own well-being. But this is also about ensuring that there are rights to access; if they are not available, they cannot be accessed. Therefore, through our programmes, we are pushing to ensure that they know where to get what they need.

My Lords, while agreeing entirely with the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, can she say how much money has been spent, and how much increased money is to be available, to provide contraceptive services?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that our programmes put women and girls at the heart of being able to access education, healthcare and maternity health. This is not about individual budgets but about programmes being delivered and making sure that part and parcel of our delivery is access to family planning.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that aid is most successful when targeted, science-based, practical and measurable?

My noble friend is absolutely right, and that is why we have a relentless focus on results and achieving value for money. I would like to give two examples. Every year, nearly 2 million children die from vaccine-preventable diseases, so I am proud that this Government have pledged to vaccinate more than 80 million children over the next five years. Of course, she is also right that it is through education and research, and through ensuring that our aid is delivered in a focused and targeted way, that we will be able to receive the sort of results that we are looking for, and I hope that we will succeed.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me how DfID is counteracting the influence of the Vatican in this area? As we all know, the population of Italy has dropped like a ton, so they are not bothered about this issue, but it does affect developing countries.

My Lords, faith organisations play a very important part in working to ensure that we are able to give choices to women and girls on when and how they have their babies. It is not about the Government issuing edicts on how family planning should be accessed but about encouraging choice, so that women are able to make that choice and, it is hoped, have better control over their lives.

My Lords, the effect on family spacing and women’s rights is fundamental, but, surely, also important is the effect of the growth in population on soil erosion, on deforestation, and on conflict over resources in so many countries. Why is it, then, that international donors and aid agencies are so coy about mentioning population increase as a factor in development?

I am not sure that I can agree with the noble Lord. Agencies accept that population growth is an issue and that it is through targeted programmes that we are going to achieve the reduction in birth rate that we need. But it is also about ensuring that those women and girls have options and are able to access family planning means, rather than us forcing Governments into taking action. This is not a place for Governments; this is for women to have choice and education.

Is the Minister aware that there is very good empirical evidence of the limitations of choice-based family planning initiatives, such as those that were extensively trialled under the Bush Administration, and is she prepared to put DfID’s commitment behind services that are not entirely choice-based but actually provide access to the sorts of contraception that young women need if they are to attain independent lives?

I will repeat that it is about choice; it is about being able to educate girls and women about what is available to them in their countries. We as a Government cannot dictate how people access family planning: they must be able to make the choices for themselves. But it is also about being able to tell them that through better healthcare and planning they will have less need to have more babies as, often as not, more babies are born is because of the belief that many of them will die.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the newly independent state of South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, and that in a population of 8 million there are only about 10 midwives—and this when 3,000 midwives are needed to ensure safe motherhood? How will DfID ensure that the Government of South Sudan’s five-year health sector development plan prioritises the urgent need for obstetric care?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. The onus will be on all donor countries to support South Sudan, particularly through its transient stages of being the newest country on the planet. Again, it is about partnership work and ensuring NGOs and donor countries work closely. It is also about ensuring that our programmes are targeted towards and reach those who we feel most need the help.