Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Behind the Scenes: Family Planning at the Gates Foundation

February 16, 2012

This is the third blog post in a series of posts we'll publish over the next two weeks addressing the foundation's work in Family Health: Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH), Nutrition, and Family Planning. With hundreds of grantees around the world, we hope to spark a conversation about—and with—the programs, projects, and organizations with which we work. Join the conversation; see our "Check Up Challenge" at the end of this post!

Last year the world’s population hit a milestone of 7 billion people. While access to contraception has increased and women are on average having fewer children than they were in the 1960’s, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Access to modern contraception can save the lives of women and children and create the opportunity for families to invest in the growth and development of the children they have. This is why, in the Family Health division at the Gates Foundation, working with our many family planning partners, we are reinvigorating our focus on family planning.

But we also recognize that the obstacles in the way of a woman’s access to contraception cannot be addressed by only one institution or a single country or only one approach. In this new year, we will continue to focus our efforts to: create engines of change in those areas of the world in which we work; develop low-cost technologies that address women’s needs; work to lower the price of injectable contraceptives and implants, and ensure that leaders around the globe are advocating for voluntary family planning to allow women and couples to determine the timing and spacing of their children’s births.

Our Family Planning (FP) strategy is made up of four initiatives designed to revitalize the issue of family planning and significantly increase the availability and use of contraceptives so women and men can plan their families.

We defined these initiatives based on areas globally that need to be strengthened to improve the overall family planning landscape and on where we can have the most impact responding to global need. Many grantees are addressing a key challenge to develop new, innovative contraceptive technologies that meet today’s family planning needs of women in low resource settings.

One lesson we have learned is that addressing contraceptive shortages and the unmet need for FP is crucial to reaching our overall global health goals.

Lack of funding, poorly functioning supply chains and weak procurement processes globally have created severe stock-outs of contraceptives – they happen over and over and over again. Our strategy addresses this global problem by advocating for increased funding for FP, better coordination among donors and governments to deliver products, and improved systems for contraceptive procurement and supply chains to increase FP support and improve progress toward meeting unmet need.  

The Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition (RHSC), managed in part by a grant to PATH, takes a global perspective on this issue and is working on getting contraceptives to the people who need and want them.

The RHSC is the only global partnership of its kind for reproductive health and family planning. The coalition works to increase the availability, quality, and access to family planning in developing countries. They do this by advocating for change, generating new knowledge, building consensus, and identifying technical solutions to delivering contraceptives to the women and men who need them. The coalition has grown tremendously since its beginning seven years ago with 12 organizations, to more than 150 member organizations at the end of 2011.

I’m particularly impressed by its work this past year as it has successfully diversified its funding with support from USAID, UNFPA, and DFID; made great strides in the policy realm with the preparation of a strategic plan for the HANDtoHAND campaign to reach 100 million additional users of modern contraception by 2015; and was directly responsible for the procurement of millions of dollars of FP commodities needed to respond to some of the supply crises in low-income countries.

Our family planning community has made amazing inroads this year in shaping global support for, and fueling interest in, increasing access to family planning tools worldwide. The extreme unmet need for family planning was beautifully imparted in the documentary Empty Handed.  This short film was produced by Population Action International, a recipient of the innovation fund managed by RHSC and highlighted at a series of special meetings last year organized by Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD) to advocate for investing more in contraceptive services, information, and supplies.

This year also brought a meeting of donors and country finance ministers at the World Bank to discuss what is known as the Demographic Dividend; the idea that investing in family planning provides key opportunities to transform entire economies, as well as nations, by improving the health and lives of women. Melinda Gates participated and, along with several others, including UK Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and several finance ministers, the issue of family planning as key to not only women’s empowerment and health, but to the health of entire nations, took center stage.

The Gold Moment this year in June will also highlight transformational global efforts underway to increase a woman’s access to contraception. I will blog more on this soon.

Though those of us who work on increasing access to and funding for family planning globally don’t need a reminder of how important this issue is, we know there are many opportunities to do this work more efficiently, so that we’re doing all we can to improve the health and lives of women and their children in the poorest parts of the world.

We look to our family planning partners, then, to continue the conversation with us; on the blog in the comments below, on Twitter through our Q&A on February 23rd at 8am using the hashtag #FHchat, and throughout the year.

Check-up Challenge: What are some innovative solutions that you have used to avoid stock-outs in your program activities?

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