A version of this post originally appeared on K4Health. Reposted with permission.
The international community is abuzz with excitement about the new global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Officially being launched this month, the aims laid out are more ambitious and all encompassing than ever before. As such, they’ve generated an expectedly broad, diverse and loud chorus of suggestions for their implementation. Everyone seems on the hunt for the best new idea or technology to carry the agenda forward. Yet, after decades of work and untold millions of dollars in investments in research and ideas, surely we must know something useful today that could be put to good use? Perhaps while smartly pursuing innovations that keep pace with our changing world, we can also put some real investment behind some of even the simplest things that we already know to be true and which might just need a little more traction before we can finally benefit from their full potential impact.
For example, right now we have a tool available to us that spans almost every SDG. It’s a relatively inexpensive solution that can simultaneously improve global outcomes in education, health and wealth. It can help preserve our environment and ensure food security for people around the world. You may be wondering why you have not heard of this amazing tool, but it’s far from new. Drumroll … it’s fully meeting the global demand for contraception. That’s right — sound evidence from around the world tells us several things.
Right now, current use of contraception prevents over 100,000 women from dying in childbirth and the deaths of over 1.5 million newborns and infants — every year. Access to family planning for women and couples living with HIV reduces the number of pediatric HIV infections. And, family planning creates valuable ripple effects in addition to improvements in health outcomes. For example, family planning can help prolong a girl’s education, as girls in many countries often have to drop out of school early due to unintended pregnancy or to care for multiple younger siblings. Contraceptive use can improve women’s participation in employment outside the home and increase their earnings. Evidence shows us that when women have control of an income, they spend more than men do on food, health, clothing and education for their children.
On a larger scale, family planning reduces overall population growth in a country, which in turn reduces the levels of demand for food and relieves the pressure being placed on the environment because of over-farming, over-fishing and over-extraction of natural resources. A clear connection can be made between contraceptive use and a wide range of economic development challenges, well beyond its health benefits. The good news is that family planning is not overly expensive, at least compared to other solutions. In fact, it can even generate savings. Even better, the benefits of investments in family planning are cumulative, like compound interest. We will continue to benefit from dividends well into the future as the next generation of healthier and better educated children grow into adulthood and productively enter the work force. In fact, the beautiful thing about access to family planning is that it empowers individual women with regard to their reproductive health in the short term, which then collectively and over time makes families, then communities, and then entire countries healthier and wealthier.
The bottom line is that access to contraception is potentially transformative on a grand scale. At the turn of the millennium, The Economist magazine named the contraceptive pill the most important scientific advance of the 20th century. The most important scientific advance! They describe it as the one invention that historians a thousand years in the future will look back on and say, “That defined the 20th century.” That is really saying something when you think about all the discoveries and technology from the last entire century, but it deserves that recognition because for the very first time in the entire history of the human race, women were provided with an easy-to-use and effective tool for planning how many children to have, and even more importantly, when to have them.
The Economist’s choice acknowledges that simply having the ability to prevent or plan pregnancy has already revolutionized the families, the workforce and, ultimately, the entire economies of countries across the developed world. And with greater attention, political will and financial commitments that acknowledge it as a truly cross-cutting tool able to address the broad SDG agenda, it can continue to help lift millions of women, men, families, communities and even nations out of extreme poverty.