UN and UK defy US funding bans

Posted: 6 February 2006

In the face of a continuing funding ban by the US administration, because of its work in China, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has approved its sixth programme of assistance to that country, totalling $27 million over five years. The move has the support of many European countries and has been followed today by the creation of a new fund, led by the United Kingdom, to provide safe abortion services to organisations in developing countries cut off from American funding because of the so-called 'Gag Rule'.

The UNFPA Executive Board and other United Nations countries praised UNFPA as a "force for good" that promotes and protects human rights, implicitly repudiating a claim that the Fund abets coercive practices.

Ten European countries that provide most of UNFPA's funding said that the agency's support to China has played "a crucial and catalytic role. ... It successfully demonstrates that a client-oriented quality of care approach to reproductive health and family planning is a viable alternative to a target-driven administrative system."

In a statement on their behalf by the United Kingdom, the countries declared: "unequivocally...in our view, UNFPA's activities in China, as in the rest of the world, are in strict conformity with the unanimously adopted Programme of Action of the ICPD [International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994), and play a key role in supporting our common endeavour, the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms." The United Kingdom was also speaking for Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. Many other countries also spoke on UNFPA programmes.

European support

The 10 European countries aligned themselves with the statement by South Africa on behalf of the Group of 77 - a coalition of 132 developing countries and territories - which also strongly endorsed UNFPA's work in China.

"In geographical areas where UNFPA is working, the client-centred service not only provided choices to many ordinary people, particularly women, but also improved the reproductive health situation in these areas," the Group of 77 stated. "The programme has contributed to the improvement of reproductive health and family planning services, strengthened the capacity of family planning workers and has enhanced the access of women to quality services and informed choices."

The Fund will continue to give priority in 2006-2010 to reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention, concentrating its assistance in 30 Chinese counties that have experimented with ways to improve services and give clients control over reproductive decisions. During the last country programme, China adopted national standards that incorporate approaches used in the UNFPA counties, including the removal of birth targets and quotas.

After UNFPA-supported counties lifted birth-spacing requirements, four provinces followed suit. Others are considering similar moves.

Independent assessment

UNFPA said that it will continue to strongly advocate for a rights-based approach and an end to coercion. It said that an independent assessment at the end of the fifth country programme (2003-2005) found that women in UNFPA-assisted counties had gained greater access to a variety of contraceptive methods and experienced a sharp drop in abortion rates.

"They also knew more about ways of preventing HIV transmission and recognised the danger signs of high-risk pregnancy. In project counties in poor, western China, hospital deliveries - a critical factor in ensuring safe motherhood -increased from 74 per cent to 91 per cent of all deliveries," it added.

UNFPA says the sixth country programme will also support the development of policies to address population ageing and gender-related concerns, including the imbalance in the country's sex ratio at birth.

At last week's first regular session for 2006, the 36-member UNDP/UNFPA Executive Board also approved new country programmes for Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Chad, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Namibia, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Peru, Swaziland, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine and Vietnam.

New fund

In a separate development, the British government has publicly defied the United States by giving money for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that have been cut off from American funding because of the Global Gag Rule which does not allow any funding to organisations which have not renounced the provision of abortion services or advice, whether or not US funding is invoved.

The UK is the founder donor of a fund set up specifically to attempt to replace the funds lost by the US imposition of the Gag Rule and increase safe abortion services.

The Department for International Development (DfID) will contribute £3 million over two years. DFID and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), whose clinics across the world have suffered under the Global Gag Rule, hope that others, particularly the Scandinavians, Dutch and Canadians, will be emboldened to put money in too.

"I think the UK is being very brave and very progressive in making this commitment," said Steven W. Sinding, Director General of the IPPF. "We're deeply grateful for this gesture not only financially but also politically.

"Tens of thousands of women who depend on our services are not able to get them. We're committed to the expansion of safe abortion because in any society no matter how efficiently contraception is made available there will be unplanned and unwanted pregnancies."

Different view

International Development Minister, Gareth Thomas said the government hoped the US position would change:

"We work very closely with the Americans but we have a very different view from them on abortion . I recognise that the Americans are not going to want to contribute at the moment. We obviously continue to hope that the position will change. It is a position that has been decided by Congress so we're very aware of it and they know that."

In a report to DFID, IPPF reveals that an estimated 19 million women will risk the consequences of an unsafe abortion this year, of whom 70,000 will die. This accounts for 13 per cent of the 500,000 maternal deaths each year. Reducing unsafe abortions is critical to reaching the UN's Millennium Development Goal on cutting maternal mortality, said Thomas.

The death and injury toll is highest in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted, as in Kenya, where some 30 per cent to 50 per cent of maternal deaths are a result of unsafe abortion.

Sources: UNFPA, IPPF,and The Guardian 6 February.

Related links:

Bush denies UNFPA grant for fourth year

SUCCESS STORY China's quiet revolution in reproductive health