26 July 2012 | EN
Countries in South-East Asia must learn from successful family planning programmes if living standards are to improve, says Crispin Maslog.
Family planning support has been in decline for more than a decade — falling from 55 per cent of all donor funding for population and development activities in 1995, to just 7 per cent in 2009.
But it was given a US$4.6 billion shot in the arm this month, and this politically sensitive development topic now appears to be making a comeback.  Earlier this month, the London Summit on Family Planning announced that it had raised enough money to meet the family planning needs of an additional 120 million women in the world's poorest 69 countries.
The announcement immediately rekindled controversy, with religious groups claiming that family planning is population control. Wendy Wright, interim executive director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said that the summit "does not address the true needs of pregnant women in developing countries, lacks safeguards against coercive campaigns, and includes some countries and organisations that want to promote abortion access".
This debate has spread across South East Asia and the Pacific, where some 26 million women do not have access to modern methods of contraception. South East Asia's growing youth population and high levels of urbanisation have precipitated a growing demand for family planning services amongst young people. And it is poor people who are usually left out.
The Philippines has been dragging its heels over the adoption of family planning programmes. This is due to opposition from the Catholic Church — the population is 85 per cent Catholic — and the fact that politicians are wary of offending the church. The country's Reproductive Health Bill has been sitting in Congress for more than a decade.
On the Pacific side, the geographical remoteness of many islands means that governments often struggle to deliver family planning services.
But some promising initiatives are emerging. In Papua New Guinea, the Pacific's largest nation, there are around 150 midwives, but health workers are currently training another 500. And, in an innovative move, the government is building a national non-scalpel vasectomy training centre and clinic in the Eastern Highlands, the country's most densely populated region, due to be launched in 2012.
To be sustainable, family planning needs to be part of a broader effort to improve reproductive health services. And these services, in turn, must be a routine part of the health services provided in every community.
There is much to learn from the region's success stories. Thailand, which once faced a daunting population growth rate, launched a national population policy in 1971. By 1986, use of contraceptives among married couples had increased from 15 to 70 per cent, and in that period, Thailand's population growth rate halved, from 3.2 per cent to 1.6 per cent. Furthermore, per capita income has nearly doubled since the policy's implementation.
Reasons for this efficient reduction include the creativity of family planning approaches, the openness of the Thai people to new ideas, and the willingness of the government to work with the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), Thailand's largest non-profit nongovernmental agency.
PDA was launched, with great fanfare, by Mechai Viravaidya, a former government economist and public relations specialist, whose imagination drove forward family planning in Thailand. Activities included staging condom balloon-blowing contests and handing out condoms at cinemas — even the traffic police were given boxes of condoms to distribute, in a programme known affectionately as "cops and rubbers". 
Vietnam's family planning effort was also impressive. In 1989, the country's population stood at 64.7 million — bigger than the Philippines' 60.1 million. By 2010, the situation was reversed, with 93.6 million Filipinos to only 88.2 million Vietnamese. Without the family planning programme, demographers estimate that Vietnam would now have a population of 104.4 million, according to Philippine congressman and economist Walden Bello. 
With 18 million fewer births, Vietnam could devote more resources to upgrading the quality of education, alleviating poverty and raising investment. In 2000–2010, the country registered an economic growth rate of 7.2 per cent per year.
According to Pham Van Chuong, a central figure in the country's population management effort, one per cent of that economic growth rate is attributable to the family planning programme.
To paraphrase Bello, within the decade average per capita income had tripled — a reflection of how economic growth was outpacing the population growth rate. In contrast, the Philippines, burdened with a continuing high population growth rate and a low economic growth rate, could only double its per capita income in the same period.
This exposes the significant economic benefits of a smaller family. Fewer mouths to feed means income goes further. And apart from the life-saving implications of having fewer children, women are available to join the workforce, while more children, including girls, can go to school.
This is not being stressed enough in the family planning debate, and it is critical, because economies in developing countries must grow by at least 6 to 7 per cent a year to achieve sustained growth and stave off poverty.
The lesson is clear: South East Asian and Pacific island nations' populations must be managed — using any available family planning method of choice — to sustain economic and social development and promote a better quality of life for all, especially women and children. And it starts with national governments cooperating with the private sector and international funding organisations.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
All SciDev.Net material is free to reproduce providing that the source and author are appropriately credited. For further details see Creative Commons.