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A Little Bit of Sugar Helps the Pill Go Down: Resilience, Peace, and Family Planning

Roger-Mark De Souza

A recent article by Malcolm Potts, Aafreen Mahmood, and Alisha Graves of the University of California Berkeley’s OASIS Initiative notes that family planning has an important role to play in building peace by increasing women’s empowerment and their agency. “The pill is mightier than the sword,” as they put it.

A Little Bit of Sugar Helps the Pill Go Down: Resilience, Peace, and Family Planning

Adapted from a commentary on “The Pill Is Mightier Than the Sword,” which appeared in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management.

recent article by Malcolm Potts, Aafreen Mahmood, and Alisha Graves of the University of California Berkeley’s OASIS Initiative notes that family planning has an important role to play in building peace by increasing women’s empowerment and their agency. “The pill is mightier than the sword,” as they put it.

Yet, peacebuilders and conservation groups may be less apt to see the benefits of family planning to their immediate causes. Indeed, in policymaking circles, the political contention around family planning and women’s health has been well-documented as a barrier to advancing these programs as effective development policies. There is a long-standing effort to stop support for organizations like the United Nations Population Fund and Planned Parenthood that provide support for women’s health services.

At the same time, evidence has demonstrated that family planning programs are cost effective, produce quick results, help women and couples meet their desired fertility levels, and produce a multitude of benefits around economic productivity, community engagement, conservation, resilience, and peacebuilding.

It is important to find common ground and articulate co-benefits that will help policy audiences appreciate and value the role of family planning – as it were, give them sugar to help the pill go down.

War and Peace

The development, security, and humanitarian communities are recognizing that incorporating women and gender differences into peacebuilding efforts can bolster community resilience. “Resilience” itself is emerging as a key concept for overall development planning. For many it refers to increasing the capacity of an individual, community, or institution to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of environmental, economic, and political crises and stresses.

In an effort to understand population dynamics and security implications, some studieshave found a link between youthful populations and conflict, even after allowance for factors such as income, ethnic heterogeneity, and type of political regime. Others have found no effect of youthful age structures whereas political and economic factors emerged as strong predictors. Urdal and Hoelscher, in an analysis of violent and non-violent disorder in 55 major Asian and African cities, found no evidence that age structure was an important influence.

“The pill is mightier than the sword”

In the 2000s, as the focus of U.S. foreign and security policy shifted to the threats posed by weak and failing states, policymakers demonstrated growing awareness of the importance of demographic variables in evaluating risk.

The National Intelligence Council in its Global Trends 2025 assessment described a demographic “arc of instability” – a geographic band of states whose populations are disproportionately 25 years or younger – that crosses much of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets the framework of national security policy in the United States, has also recognized the link between security, population dynamics, and climate change. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation has provided programming guidance that describes the key roles women play in conflict and post-conflict situations including acting as agents of change.

The role of gender issues in U.S. security and foreign policy is explored by Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl in their recent book, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy. The Doctrine is derived from a speech in Beijing in 1995 when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton made the case that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” As Hudson and Leidl define it, the doctrine recognizes that the subjugation of women is a threat to the common security of the world and the national security of the United States, and that the suffering of women and the instability of nations go hand in hand.

Evidence of the Hillary Doctrine is demonstrated by some peacebuilding initiatives, including UN Security Council Resolution 1325 calling for women to play an integral role in conflict resolution, peacekeeping forces, and all efforts at “countering violent extremism.” Similarly, the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, released in 2011, was designed to facilitate women’s involvement in preventing conflict and building peace in unstable countries.

These approaches recognize that women’s leadership and participation can enhance a community’s ability to resist violent extremism, but in only a few instances do they make a direct link to family planning.

Resilience and Family Planning

In security terms, resilience is emerging as a policy and programmatic framework for addressing multilevel fragility (i.e., at different scales, such as individual, community, and state) and for finding ways to manage and plan for political and economic disruptions or outbreaks of conflict tied to those fragilities.

In peacebuilding circles, donors such as USAID and the G7 foreign ministers have noted that armed conflict, when paired with other factors, poses a significant threat to societal resilience, leaving people and communities more vulnerable to stresses from future shocks. Accordingly, “resilience deficits” are more likely in fragile and conflict-affected areas.

There are a number of ways that donors are working to institutionalize resilience – to operationalize it in their field-based programming, to mainstream it in their funding strategies, and to promote ways of sharing innovations. These include joint assessments across sectors, agencies, and donors; more flexible funding and improved procurement processes; commitments to bridge the humanitarian-development divide; directive communications from headquarters on resilience; and incentivizing personnel to embrace resilience in their work.

Development interventions that focus on ways to build resilience, however, are sometimes criticized for their inability to address local realities, especially power dynamics – which can prevent women from participating in peacebuilding efforts, especially in places where population pressures, youth bulges, and gender inequities already pose great risks to development and humanitarian efforts. Ultimately, governments and policymakers can reinforce resilience by addressing conflict and fragility dynamics and facilitating peacebuilding.

Global Collaborative Efforts

Donor collaborations have emerged around this resilience agenda. One particular effort, the Global Resilience Partnership, joins USAID, the Swedish International Development Agency, and the Rockefeller Foundation to build resilience in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. The range of responses that are being considered include linking social and financial capital; livestock trading; technological and infrastructure innovations; early warning systems; using mobile technology to help communities access information that will help them anticipate, plan for, respond to, and learn from disasters; and private sector engagement.

Population dynamics matter to peacebuilding

None of these interventions specifically address family planning, women’s empowerment, or peacebuilding. Potts and his OASIS colleagues allude to this resilience agenda, and elsewhere I make the case for demographic resilience, in recognition of demography’s effect on environmental security. In particular, I suggest that demographic resilience – the ability of a government to harness its age structure and address gender dynamics to improve its overall well-being – provides a basis for stability that reduces conflict at the national or sub-national level.

Population dynamics matter to peacebuilding. Unless policies specifically incorporate strategies to manage these dynamics, efforts to mitigate conflict and build peace will be undermined.

The family planning movement has recently embraced another development challenge around meeting the global unmet need for family planning. Family Planning 2020(FP2020) is a collaboration between USAID, the UK Department for International Development, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with an ambitious target of empowering 120 million girls and young women in the poorest countries to decide when and how many children to have.

Beth Schlachter, executive director for FP2020, notes that it is important for girls to delay childbearing, complete their education, and to give birth when they decide. Doing so has multiple benefits for the economy, health, education, and environment.

Filling in the Bigger Picture

As the development community positions itself for the roll out and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and as donors come together on global challenges, such as FP2020 and the Global Resilience Partnership, there are opportunities to align family planning with broader development and peacebuilding messages.

The resilience community makes the case that there are “triple dividends” from helping people prepare for the unexpected and bounce back better: first, avoiding losses when disasters strike; second, unlocking development potential by stimulating innovation and bolstering economic activity; and third, receiving social, environmental, and economic co-benefits.

Similarly, we know that investing in voluntary family planning programs that link environmental and economic outcomes also helps build resilience by: helping communities to diversify livelihoods; bolstering community engagement and resilience; building new governance structures at the local level; and positioning women as agents of change and community leaders.

Once the Sustainable Development Goals have been unified into an overarching sustainable development framework, there will be a great need to articulate how governance and stability, health (including family planning), and climate change resilience intersect. If indeed “the pill is mightier than the sword,” it will need some sugar to help it go down in the form of concrete co-benefits in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, resilience, and peacebuilding. The time is now.

Adapted from a commentary on “The Pill Is Mightier Than the Sword,” which appeared in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management.

About the Author

Roger-Mark De Souza

Roger-Mark De Souza

Global Fellow and Advisor;
Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
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