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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.