Contraception is not a panacea

The UK Government/Gates Foundation summit on family planning is a good thing, but we can't be fooled into thinking it can solve all our problems.

Every day around the world 1,000 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. Think about it: that’s 365,000 women every year – almost as many as the total population of Bristol.

In many of the world’s poorest countries early marriage, overstretched healthcare services and low adoption of modern contraception methods together create a situation where pregnancy can be a cause for real concern as well as celebration.

So it is great news that the prime minister will tomorrow host a joint UK Government/Gates Foundation summit on family planning intended to provide 120 million women with access to contraception over the next eight years at a cost of £2.6bn.

David Cameron and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell certainly deserve real credit for putting the issue of family planning firmly on the development agenda. Giving millions more women the means to choose when and whether to start families will not only save lives, it will also help families who are struggling to feed their existing children avoid unwanted pregnancies. And it could play a role in helping younger brides delay pregnancy until they are ready to have children.

But the government needs to avoid the misconception that contraception is a panacea. Girls forced into early marriage, for example, often have less control over the choice about when to start a family. Handing out contraceptives is necessary but not enough. These efforts need to be backed up by education and support services that empower women to assert their rights. And women who choose to get pregnant will still die unnecessarily unless there are good quality health services to take care of them.

Alongside the provision of contraception we need more programmes like the one Oxfam runs in Hadrahmout Governate in Yemen where only a quarter of the population has access to primary healthcare.  There we are building health facilities, distributing home delivery kits and supporting health education and awareness raising programmes. We are also training midwives, a process which not only improves healthcare but can also raise the status of women in society.
These issues may not get much airtime at the summit, to be held on July 11, World Population Day, which is planned as the government’s latest effort to communicate to the British public the benefits our aid brings. In these tough economic times, ministers deserve a loud cheer for its unwavering commitment to keeping Britain’s promises to the poorest in the face of some significant opposition on their own backbenches and beyond.

There are potentially two reasons why ministers find family planning an attractive topic for such an event. Firstly, giving women a chance to gain control of their own reproductive health is something that can save lives, and that we can all understand.

Critics opposed to aid or who believe that our concern for the poorest should begin and end at home have two simple questions to answer: do you believe that it is right that women in Sierra Leone, for example, are more than 70 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth than those in the UK? If not, what would you do about it?

The second attraction of family planning is potentially more problematic. Population growth is the public’s number one concern about development– yes, higher than corruption. This goes beyond simple prejudice about growing numbers of Africans or Asians (although that doubtless does exist) - it is also fuelled by concerns that population growth is responsible for climate change and other environmental problems.

This is based on a fallacy. It is consumption in the rich rather than the poor world that is primarily responsible for the pressure on our planet. In the 25 years to 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for almost a fifth of the growth in the world’s population but only 2.4 per cent of the increase in CO2 emissions. By contrast, North America was responsible for four per cent of population growth but a staggering 13.9 per cent of the rise in emissions.

These facts did not stop the Optimum Population Trust deciding a couple of years ago, ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit, to launch a carbon off-setting scheme where instead of planting forests your money was used to fund family planning in poor countries.

It is the government’s job to challenge public prejudice which is not based on fact. It needs to find ways to ensure that tomorrow’s summit avoids reinforcing such lazy and (for us high consumers) convenient thinking.

Barbara Stocking is Chief Executive of Oxfam

Indian programme officer G. Shilpa poses with a female condom at an awareness camp in Hyderabad. Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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