Strange bedfellows: the intersection of environment and public health

January 24, 2013

Family planning and conservation – mutually exclusive topics, or entirely inseparable?

Resource Media has spent the last several years looking at the connections between environmental and public health, and, specifically, at the benefits of addressing unmet family planning needs to curb climate change. Climate, like population, is one of those issues that’s tied to nearly everything else that we care about if we’re interested in building a sustainable future: hunger, poverty, clean water, clean air, etc. And it turns out that giving women what they already want – access to options for planning their families – is a great way of addressing population, climate change, and nearly every other associated issue.

But talking about these issues in the same sentence has always been fraught with risk. Conservationists worry that even mentioning population could trigger accusations that they care more about [wildlife/forests/wetlands/name-your-enviro-issue] than they do about people. Family planning advocates worry that describing environmental benefits risks mission drift.

What we’ve learned at Resource Media is that connecting these issues results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Around the world, the changing climate and lack of access to family planning affect so many people, in so many ways, that no one group of stakeholders can solve the challenges on their own. To succeed in turning the tide and creating a healthier and more prosperous future for communities everywhere, we must build broader constituencies that cross traditional boundaries of politics, issue silos, and even world views.

If that sounds like an enormous task – well, it is. Resource Media has made a start on this by helping conservation voices and family planning advocates to see their common ground, to identify and work together towards common goals. Last year, we summarized some of the lessons we’ve learned through this work in a memo to help our partners and potential allies think through how to tackle this work themselves.

And we’re not alone. I recently attended a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC focused on setting sustainable development goals for population and reproductive rights. One of the panel speakers was Beth Schlachter, Senior Population Policy Advisor in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (check out her blog post about the Day of Seven Billion). It can be hard to get the attention of groups that don’t normally focus on women’s rights and family planning, Schlachter noted:

“It can be difficult to attract the attention of [civil society advocates] who rely on empowered women to achieve their programs in related fields, such as environment and climate change advocates who are perhaps not aware of the linkages between their work and the [Commission on the Status of Women].”

But it’s vitally important that we try:

“It’s incumbent upon our advocacy community to ensure that population dynamics, and their linkages to rights-based programs, are well understood by experts in other fields as well, such as climate change experts, agricultural specialists, those working on access to sustainable supply of clean water, and those in the education field, among others. We will lose an important opportunity to increase the understanding among all development experts of the centrality of [sexual and reproductive health] if we don’t reach out to these communities now to articulate the impact of population change on their work.”

Speakers at the Wilson Center event described areas where these cross-issue conversations are already happening, often because communities are raising their voices and asking for the services they need the most. Schlachter cited a project in Madagascar [see minute 1:32 on the video] that started out as strictly environmental, aimed at protecting coral reefs and fisheries. But when the group running the project talked to local residents, the number one request was for family planning services so they’d no longer have to walk miles just to get advice and supplies. “It’s the local communities who know what they need,” Schlachter said.

Speaker John May, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and Adjunct Professor of Demography at Georgetown University, noted that efforts are underway to provide reproductive health services at refugee camps in response to requests from the refugees themselves. And last September, May attended the OASIS@Berkeley Conference to address the issues impacting the people of the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa. For the first time, he said, they brought together experts on climate change, women’s rights, agriculture, family planning and population, resulting in a discussion of issues and solutions that was greater than any one set of stakeholders could have produced alone.

Breaking down silos – maybe it’s the wave of the future.


Photos courtesy of the Gates Foundation on Flickr