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We All Want What’s Best for Our Children

My job as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation requires a lot of travel. I don’t always like being away from my children, but I know I need to get out and meet mothers in African countries who are working hard to care for their children.

During the last 15 years, I’ve asked hundreds of women in dozens of developing countries about what they want for the future, and that’s why I’ve become a strong advocate for family planning. I hear over and over again that in order to build a better life, they need information about how to plan their families.  We know that giving women access to family planning is the first link on a long chain of things that give people an opportunity to build a good life—safe motherhood, healthy newborns, vaccinated children and the list goes on.

I have repeated this message all over the world. I have talked about family planning in Berlin. In London.In Washington, DC. It’s important to tell the government policymakers in those cities why the path to a healthy productive life starts with a woman’s power to decide when to get pregnant, so that she can provide for her children’s basic needs and invest in their education as they get older.

Earlier this week, however, I spoke about family planning at the International Family Planning Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in front of 3,000 delegates from countries all over the world. It was a pleasure to have this conversation in an African country, because that’s where the majority of the work is happening. This is an international movement, but it’s organized around the needs expressed by women who live on this continent, and it’s led by governments and civil society in African countries.

At the conference, I met with leaders from Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. They told me about the work they’ve been doing in the past two years to make sure their citizens have access to family planning information and contraceptives.

Since a major Family Planning Summit in London in the summer of 2012, a dozen countries have held their own local summits and national family planning conferences. Today, seven African countries have costed national family planning plans. Costed means that they’ve itemized how much it will cost to implement the plan, which goes a long way toward turning good intentions into a reality for women.

I also told the leaders about an investment our foundation is making, along with several partners, to help countries design and implement family planning programs that are as effective as possible. It’s an investment in data.

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Analyzing real-time data is the only way to manage the performance of any initiative or organization. Sometimes, Bill and I wonder how we would have done our jobs at Microsoft with as little data as many family planning programs have. The answer is, not very well.

Until now, the only data we’ve had comes from surveys done every five years. Though they do effectively count the number of women using contraceptives, they don’t provide enough sophisticated information about the complex factors that explain the overall count.

As I write, 10 countries in Africa are beginning to roll out brand new data systems. Hundreds of women are being trained to conduct detailed surveys of women in communities, health workers at clinics, and private pharmacists in their shops. The surveys, which are conducted with mobile phones,willbe done at least once a year, so countries will be able to manage their performance continuously. If there are outliers, clinics serving unusually large or small numbers of women, they’ll be able to find out why, replicate what the most effective clinics are doing, and improveservices in clinics that are lagging. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done.

I am excited about our work to help countries gather high-quality data, because I believe it’s a good way to support African leaders creating strategies and doing the day to day work. It is not our job to decide what will work in any given country, but we can help the people who should be deciding do so with great information at their fingertips.

One thing that’s nice about all the travel I do is that I get to meet many different people. I appreciate the uniqueness that lies within every human being, and I enjoy learning about the nuances of various cultures. However, I am always struck by the commonalities among us.

Whether it’s family planning advocates, heads of state and ministers of African countries, or the Ethiopian women I met when I left the conference and traveled to the countryside, they all want the same thing, fundamentally. They want to ability to plan their futures so their children can go to school and lead healthy and productive lives.

At the International Family Planning Conference, I got to meet African leaders at every level who are committed to helping women achieve these goals. I am grateful for the opportunity to help them deliver on their commitments.

Melinda Gates is Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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