Does USAID Blame Women for the World’s Wars?

By Rebecca Oas & Susan Yoshihara Published on April 28, 2018

A top health official from USAID suggested that one reason for all the conflict in the world is that women are having too many children. Is it USAID’s job to get other governments to make women stop reproducing, even if they want to?

The agency got caught flat-footed when asked this question at a webcast event it sponsored at the Wilson Center.

Countries with high fertility tend to have populations with younger median ages. For years, demographers have said that these countries appear to be more conflict-prone than those with lower fertility. However, it’s hard to discuss these observations without touching the third rail of population control.

How to Build Peace and Security?

The demographic data was presented by the Stimson Center’s Richard Cincotta. He prefaced his charts of African “youth bulges” by saying it’s “not about causality, but about improving analytical forecasts.” But when he posed the “big question” of how a country enters the demographic “sweet spot” of economic growth and security, he spoke frankly. It’s “by experiencing a decline in the total fertility rate to below 2.8 children per woman,” he said.

The academic Cincotta was cautious about proposing policy. USAID’s deputy assistant administrator for global health, Kerry Pelzman, was less restrained. She touted the benefits of smaller families and called family planning a “pragmatic, foundational element of global development.” She also claimed that family planning is important in building peace and security.

Taken together, this puts the burden on women in developing countries to limit their family size for the sake of conflict prevention. As women, we found it troubling to hear U.S. policy makers and their advisors implying that it’s our fault if we suffer poverty and conflict.

Family Planning Market Saturation

The panel, which included participants from New America and the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the policy implications were straightforward. If only women had “access” to family planning, fertility rates would drop. Currently, 214 million women in developing countries are described as having an “unmet need” for family planning. Yet only five percent of them cite lack of access as their reason for nonuse. The number citing lack of knowledge is even lower. The market is saturated.

Cincotta expressed surprise at this statistic. A representative of the Guttmacher Institute, which published the finding in 2016, confirmed its accuracy. She noted that one of the leading reasons women choose not to use contraception is the unwanted side effects. A UNFPA representative said that access is lower among adolescents, suggesting that, like UNFPA, governments must push contraceptives on girls, too.

Contraceptive access is not the same as use, and nonuse is not always due to a lack of access. Nevertheless, family planning advocates tend to equate these things, despite clear evidence to the contrary. This creates troubling ripple effects when their talking points migrate to other areas, such as peace and security.

Currently, 214 million women in developing countries are described as having an “unmet need” for family planning. Yet only five percent of them cite lack of access as their reason for nonuse. The number citing lack of knowledge is even lower.

Pelzman cited the FP2020 family planning initiative, which is supported by USAID. A partnership launched by Melinda Gates, it “aims to empower 120 million girls and young women in the poorest countries to decide freely for themselves when and how many children they want to have.” The problem is that FP2020 doesn’t measure its results in terms of access to services or freedom to make decisions. It lays out a far blunter goal of “adding 120 million new users of contraceptives by the year 2020.”

The Wilson Center event was co-sponsored by the USAID-funded PACE Project, which promotes FP2020. Its purpose is to ensure that family planning, reproductive health, and population issues are “at the heart” of, and “recognized as key” to, economic growth and development.

Family Planning No Panacea for Peace

It’s easy to see why family planning proponents in USAID benefit from latching onto the emerging women, peace, and security agenda. The reverse is not true. The Trump administration should keep that agenda focused where it belongs, on promoting women’s leadership in preventing conflict, building peace, and waging war.

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If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even so, family planning has run its course as a “foundational” or “key” component of economic development. Many countries fell right past 2.8 children per woman without the seeing the promised peace and prosperity. The demographic “sweet spot” is not a guaranteed fix-all. Rather than pushing this narrative uncritically, USAID should at least help nations see the opportunity costs of fertility decline. An example is China, which faces a rapidly shrinking workforce, millions of “missing” girls, and an aging population without a social safety net.

That leaves USAID administrator, Mark Green, with a dilemma. If he curbs the agency’s enthusiasm for family planning, the left will cry “War on Women!” But for USAID to keep promoting family planning as a panacea also has a downside. Attempts to drive up contraceptive use under the banner of increased access can lead to coercion. Increased funding for products and services women and couples don’t want results in waste. Peace and security remain a critical focus area for the U.S. and the world. And as a start, USAID should avoid blaming women for the world’s wars.


Rebecca Oas, Ph.D., is associate research director at the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam). Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is C-Fam’s research director and co-editor of Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics.

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