The international community has “made a mistake” with the intensity of its focus on the global HIV/Aids epidemic and lost ground on family planning as a result, says the head of the United Nations Population Fund.
Interviewed as the world population reaches seven billion, Babatunde Osotimehin, the fund’s executive director, said efforts to expand family planning services in the developing world stalled for a decade while global health organisations turned their energies to fighting HIV/Aids. “We made a mistake; we disconnected HIV from reproductive health,” he said.
About 60-million people have been infected with or died from HIV/Aids in the 30 years since the virus was first identified. Meanwhile, the global population will hit seven billion at the end of October. About 1.8-billion are young people, the vast majority living in the poorest countries.
By criticising decades of development policy by the UN and world governments, Osotimehin’s remarks are hugely controversial. “I find it difficult to understand how any development leader can believe that funding for Aids in Africa was a distraction from other priorities,” said Siddharth Dube, a former senior adviser at UNAids.
Osotimehin, a doctor and former Nigerian health minister who is the father of five children, suggested HIV/Aids was a bigger setback than the policies of George Bush — who cut funding to the fund and other family planning efforts. He said family planning was already “off the radar” at the time because of the preoccupation with HIV/Aids.
He had found it difficult to talk about family planning at the height of the HIV/Aids crisis. “It was impossible for me to stand up in a country where young men and women are dying and to say: ‘Excuse me, I think you need to cut down on birth rates.'”
Osotimehin rejects setting a population target and does not attach much importance to the symbolic value of world leaders limiting their own family size. Instead, he views family planning as an integrated part of development, pointing out that the 20 countries projected to have the fastest population growth are the poorest in the world.
He argues that developing countries have to devote a larger share of their own resources to family planning and health. —