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What’s Brexit Got to Do with International Family Planning? A Lot

News of Great Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union is sending shockwaves through the world. Global markets reacted to the results, and Great Britain’s pound sterling (or pound) was driven to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. It rebounded, and ended up down 8% at the end of the day. This volatility in the value of the pound will remain as long at Great Britain’s future engagement with the EU and the global economy is uncertain. Instability may spill over into Europe, although the euro has remained stable thus far.

What does Brexit and exchange rate volatility have to do with international family planning? A lot. In practical terms, £100 million would buy $150 million worth of contraceptives on the international market before polls closed on the Brexit vote. At its lowest dip during the day, the same £100 million would only buy $133 million worth of contraceptives. That is a huge difference.

For some countries, this type of exchange rate volatility would have little impact outside the country.

But the U.K. is one of the single largest funders of international family planning, so the falling value of the pound is a threat to contraceptive security worldwide.

In 2014, the U.K. provided nearly a quarter of all the funds for international family planning, or US$327.6 million. It has been steadily increasing its family planning assistance since hosting the landmark London Summit on Family Planning in 2012. Those gains are now being eroded.

To make matters worse, the U.K. is the largest single donor to UNFPA Supplies, UNFPA’s flagship program supporting commodity security around the world. According to UNFPA sources, the Supplies program is facing a 40% funding shortfall this year. Now every GBP contribution will go less far in filling that gap. And UNFPA does not have the funds on-hand to make up the funding gap, since it is already struggling to raise funds for its core operations.

The funding landscape for international family planning has changed literally overnight, thousands of miles away from the people in the poorest countries of the world who are least prepared to cope. If the GBP continues to fall, the human costs could be felt in contraceptive stock-outs, rising unintended pregnancies, increased unsafe abortion, and lives lost.

So what can be done? In the short term, there will be a lot scrambling in the international family planning community to shield women and girls in the developing world from feeling the brunt of the falling value of the GBP. We sincerely hope that other donors will step in to fill these gaps.

But there also need to be changes at the systemic level, to prevent problems like this in the future. My biggest lesson from witnessing Brexit: Many governments’ heavy reliance on donor funding for family planning is unsustainable. Donor funding is volatile, either by policymakers choosing to put money elsewhere or because of factors outside their control. In the long term, countries need to take control of meeting the reproductive needs of their people from their own resources. Millions of lives are depending on it.


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