Media Briefings

Contraception As Development: How Family Planning Programmes Improve Women’s Lives

  • Published Date: June 2010

Women in developing countries who have access to family planning programmes as teenagers stay in school longer and get better jobs later in life. That is one of the conclusions of new research by Dr Grant Miller, published in the June 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.

His analysis of Profamilia of Colombia, one of the earliest and most highly regarded family planning programmes in the developing world, finds that such programmes may not lead to large reductions in fertility. But they can be very effective in fostering young women’s acquisition of education and skills, and improving their lives.

Dr Miller, a health economist at the Stanford Medical School, comments:

‘Given that 350 million couples worldwide presently lack access to the benefits of family planning services, contraception deserves more attention in discussions of global efforts to reduce poverty.’

How much do family planning programmes contribute to fertility decline in developing countries? Academics and international aid practitioners have debated this point for decades.

There are basically two sides: those who think that the supply of modern contraceptives is the most important factor in reducing birth rates; and those who think that changing social and economic circumstances – like new opportunities for women outside the home – matter more.

Consensus has been difficult to achieve because family planning programmes are typically targeted at areas that disproportionately want or need them. (There is one exception – a true policy experiment conducted in Bangladesh in the late 1970s – but the programme was considered by some to be unrealistically intensive and not scalable.)

The new study sheds light on this question by studying the nationwide spread of one of the earliest and best-reputed family planning programmes in the developing world – Profamilia (Asociación Probienestar de la Familia Colombiana) of Colombia.

Dr Miller uses detailed records of Profamilia’s expansion during the 1960s and 1970s – an era when politics and religious beliefs in this Catholic Latin American country limited public sector involvement, making Profamilia the dominant family planning provider for several decades.

Interviews with the organisation’s early leaders suggest that its spread wasn’t closely related to a desire or need for family planning – Dr Miller finds some statistical evidence consistent with this assertion as well – making it a good case for study.

Overall, Dr Miller finds that as family planning programmes arrived in local communities, women there were able to postpone their first birth and to have about 5% fewer children in their lifetime.

This was an era of rapid fertility decline in Colombia, however, and these reductions account for only 6-7% of the total fertility decline during Colombia’s demographic transition. Factors other than family planning therefore seem more important for fertility decline in this case.

But Dr Miller also finds that the programme produced other important benefits for young women. Women gaining access to family planning as teenagers stayed in school longer and worked more in the formal sector later in life.

These other benefits suggest that family planning programs may be highly effective in fostering human capital accumulation and improving the lives of women, even if they don’t lead to large reductions in fertility.


Notes for editors: ‘Contraception as Development? New Evidence from Family Planning in Colombia’ by Grant Miller is published in the June 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.

Grant Miller is at the Stanford Medical School.

For further information: contact Grant Miller on +1-650-723-2714 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: