The 2018 International Conference on Family Planning, held in Kigali, Rwanda, was framed as an all-round celebration for the advancements made to family planning in recent years. Supported by development-world giants such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Johns Hopkins, and with speakers including Bill Gates and Jane Goodall, feeling a little star-struck was unavoidable. Conference-goers and presenters were invited to wear ‘superhero’ masks handed out at the opening ceremony, becoming the ‘Family Planning Superheroes’, who were going to lead the world to widespread contraceptive use in time for the Family Planning 2020 goal of reaching 120 million more women and girls with birth control. For someone coming from a more critical world of academia and unused to such events, the whole occasion was an eye-opener.
The world of international development and policy may work slightly differently from that of academia, but they are intimately related. As a researcher who has studied the devastating effects of the family planning initiatives implemented in Peru as a result of a now twenty-year old conference on reproduction, such events carry great interest, not just for what can be learnt from the individual speakers or presentations, but for what they hold for the future.
That past conference about which I speak is the United Nations 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. For those involved in reproductive health research this conference is legend; it shifted the views on population from stemming population growth to a focus on individual women and rights. In Peru, however, it is hailed as the start of what would be a disastrous family planning campaign that ended with an estimated 300,000+ enforced sterilisations. President Alberto Fujimori was the only male head of state to attend the conference, a fact for which he received much praise. However, his family planning campaign became over-zealous, with some academics accusing his government of implementing neo-Malthusian population-control methods by targeting sterilisations at the poorer sectors of society. Importantly, it is always traced back to Cairo. Having had attended a number of conferences during the course of my PhD, at times I feel that it is often difficult to see if and how one is making a direct impact. However, Cairo showed us that international events addressing reproductive health can have consequences long into the future and the lives of individual men and women across the world.
So, to return to Kigali; what effects can we expect from this important event?
The theme of the conference was ‘Investing for a lifetime of returns’ – policy and programmes that can provide evidence of returns are important here. Do financially-sound policies always mean policies that are best for the people? Like Cairo 1994, time alone will tell the outcome of such a gathering.