In honor of World Mental Health Day’s theme for this year, the workplace, here is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen that talks about how to deal with anxiety in the workplace.
One of the most powerful theories on how to motivate people on the work-floor is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which stems from research into job satisfaction and is therefore all about motivation. The term Observational Listening was coined to propose a way of listening that focuses on emotions people are currently experiencing. The common factor between these two is emotion, how these affect the communication process and by extension how emotions are key when wanting to motivate others. In this post I will briefly touch on these ideas and then focus on a specific emotion: Anxiety.
Self-Determination Theory and the basic psychological need for safety
Self-Determination Theory states that the fulfilment of three psychological needs influences job satisfaction: Mastery, connection and autonomy. The need for mastery is in a nutshell the feeling that you are good at what you do. The need for connection means you don’t only go to work to earn a living, but also because of the good feelings you get from positive interactions with your colleagues. And the need for autonomy is the respect you receive for yourself as person: You are allowed to be who you are and also may choose how and when you do the things you do at work. So the good feelings you get when these three needs are adequately fulfilled in your job makes you feel good about yourself and therefore happy about your job.
If we extend these needs into the social arena, the need for autonomy and connection seem to be essential for wellbeing and need no further explanation. Social mastery needs some elaboration: It has to do with competency in terms of being able to anticipate others’ behavior, reacting appropriately to this behavior and the ability to influence others. In short, it has to do with a feeling of being in control, or the basic psychological need for safety.
It isn’t difficult to see how these basic psychological needs tie in with someone’s current emotional experience. When people feel safe, connected and autonomous they generally experience a sense of wellbeing. Bear in mind, though, that everyone differs in their needs and to what degree they require these to be fulfilled. Also note these are psychological needs, not material needs. Many people who find themselves in objectively dangerous conditions still feel safe as they feel they (to some extent) are able to react appropriately or even exert influence on their situation.
Anxiety is a very basic emotion and has a positive intention: It prevents you from doing silly things, things which could endanger your existence. The survival instinct is so strong, that almost all sensory perception is first filtered by an organ in the midbrain: The amygdala. This organ is responsible for our so-called negativity bias: We first need to scan the environment for potentially dangerous situations, as these have priority. So anxiety really is an adaptive emotion, it ensures we survive. It only becomes a problem when its intensity isn’t appropriate for the actual situation at hand.
On a very basic level, human beings are social because we need each other. Exclusion from the group that surrounds us is a potentially dangerous situation, something borne out by research: When a person ventilates a view which is different from the majority of the group, their amygdala react. They react irrespective whether the person actually experiences fear when standing up for their view. Also when they feel excluded for what or whom they are, this will lead to anxiety.
Anxiety and communication
In the same way anxiety has its role to play in communication. In first instance it prevents us from saying silly things, things which will obviously lead to our exclusion from that group we would like to belong to. On the other hand it may also inhibit us, prevent us from saying the things that should be said (when others cross our boundaries, for example), prevent us from making contact with others (think of shyness, for example) or simply cause us to provide politically correct responses so as not to stand out too much from the group.
So what can you do when dealing with an anxious other? Firstly you will need to be able to recognize an anxious response: eyes wide (or wider than normal: both eyebrows lift), the tightening of the lip, the rapid breaking of eye-contact and moving uncomfortably are tell-tales. As people seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe, your task is to ensure you provide a space in which you and those around you may speak freely. Giving well-meant compliments from time to time may also be beneficial, although those with (extremely) low self-esteem won’t really believe the compliment anyway and see your compliment as manipulation.
A safe space
So what can you do precisely to create that safe space where even anxious people are stimulated to speak more freely? Practicing Observational Listening is a good start: By concentrating on what the other understood by your message (rather than what you meant), you see their current emotions more clearly and can respond to their emotions more sensitively. Also by being a role model, showing for all to see that you are an empathic person of integrity who acts accordingly. And by displaying some of your own vulnerability in the appropriate use of self-disclosure. Thereby you are the safe space where even anxious people feel safe enough to speak about what’s on their mind.
Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.
About Markus van Alphen
Already after completing his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Cape Town, Markus realized the impact individual characteristics and interpersonal interactions have on people’s work and lives. This led him to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
As Thought Leader he proposes how the art of Observational Listening can lead to improved communication and interaction between people in a variety of contexts, whether professionally or personally.
He currently works as a worldwide therapist for individuals, couples and families using webcam technology. He is a trainer, lecturer and curriculum developer in undergraduate and postgraduate psychology, counselling students at various colleges and universities across the Netherlands. He writes books in the field of psychology and is also a contributing author for various professional literature. As a restorative practitioner he works hands-on, being called in to resolve incidents and initiate the process of conflict resolution, as well as train others to implement the restorative approach.
This is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen.
An important task you have as a leader is giving feedback. Not only in terms of task performance (so that the other knows how he or she is doing), but also in terms of social behavior. This article is about just that: giving feedback on someone’s behavior with the intention that the other actually does something with that feedback. In other words, you give feedback because you would like to see different behavior. In a previous post, we looked at the difference between compliments, criticism and feedback. We now deal with the rules you should follow in order to increase the chance that your feedback will lead to desired results.
Feedback Is About Behavior That Can Be Modified
The term feedback stems from General Systems Theory, where it means that the output (or result) of a system is fed back to the input, with the objective being to maintain or change that output. In communication theory, feedback means telling someone what the effect of their behavior is, in order that they can change it. Feedback is about behavior that can be changed. It is different from criticism, in that the person receiving the feedback is actually able to do something with it. Feedback in its simplest form is nothing other than giving someone a tip, a suggestion how to handle something differently. In its most complicated form it is an observation on the effects of certain behavior and a suggestion as to what alternative behavior would be preferred.
Feedback Is Used To Elicit Different Behavior
There are three main reasons to give feedback: A tip may be given simply to help the other person; another may ask you for feedback, or you can give feedback so that the other will change their behavior. Even when giving another person a tip, as a leader you will often do so because you want them to do something differently. So, other than when someone specifically asks for feedback, you generally give it for your own reasons – you want the other to behave in such a way that you or your organization benefits (or is disturbed less). In that sense it is a special form of making a request. So, before even thinking of giving feedback, it is good practice to consider what you want from the other, why you want that, and whether it is realistic and acceptable to expect this of them. This because there is little point to giving feedback when you up-front know the other isn’t going to do anything with it. In that case some other intervention is more appropriate.
The Best Way To Give Feedback
What, then, is an effective way to give feedback? Here are some general rules to raise the probability that the other will actually (attempt to) autonomously change their behavior:
- Face-to-face, alone: Especially when feedback is unsolicited, it isn’t given publicly but privately. This may mean you need to create an opportunity in which feedback can be given. Usually a simple invitation will suffice, such as: ‘May I have a word with you?’, ‘Do you have a minute for me?’ or ‘When could I speak with you privately?’
- Introduce the goal: Without beating about the bush, briefly state the purpose, for example with: ‘I would like to speak with you about something I have noticed / something that bothers me / something I don’t appreciate’. By being direct and transparent, you are being forthcoming and genuine. Suppress the desire to begin with something positive or a compliment, as the receiver will already anticipate what is about to happen. They are waiting for the ‘… but …’ and will interpret the compliment as a trick. It isn’t a compliment at all (everything before the word ‘but’ may be erased), rather a devious way to introduce something negative.
- Recent behavior: Let bygones be bygones. It is easier to remember something that happened today or yesterday than something that happened last week. If the other cannot even remember exactly what happened, chances are your message won’t come across. Also, stick to that one recent event and don’t drag in the past using all the previous occasions and examples as ammunition. Doing that will probably lead to a discussion, meaning that the essence (that which you would like the other to change) is left untouched.
- Concrete behavior: What did the other do exactly? You will need to spell this out in terms of concrete behavior. ‘How you behaved towards your colleague’ or ‘The way you dealt with that client’, are far from concrete: What do you mean by these statements? Better are: ‘You were gossiping about your colleague at the coffee machine’ or ‘You repeatedly interrupted the client whilst he was speaking’.
- The effect of current behavior on you in the I-form: Behavior has an effect on a person, and it is a good strategy to mention how another’s behavior affects you, using the I-form. It sets a general tone: It is difficult to question another’s feeling. This reduces the chance the other will get defensive and start a discussion. When I say, ‘It makes me feel uncomfortable’ then most people will intuitively know that saying ‘No, it doesn’t’ isn’t really an appropriate retort. Even in your position as leader it is better to stick with your own personal experience (‘I feel very uncomfortable when clients are treated disrespectfully’, for example) than refer to the effect of the behavior on others.
- Offer alternatives: In terms of concrete, executable and desirable behavior, even if it is only one alternative, the other can at least choose to continue their behavior without change (in which case another intervention might be needed later on) or try the alternative. This is also the essential ingredient of feedback: Letting the other know what you do want or would rather see.
- Short and sweet: Your message and your wish come across strongest when you don’t beat about the bush, but stick to the core issue. You weaken your message (and the other’s willingness to do something about it) by bringing in several arguments as ammunition (such as why you are justified in expecting this). You already have given your strongest argument when you say what the effect of their behavior is on you.
- Ask for willingness: The other’s willingness to change something in their behavior increases when you explicitly ask: ‘Would you do that for me?’ This is for two reasons: Firstly, most people find it difficult to turn down a request for help, more so than any other kind of request. Secondly, by not explicitly asking, the other could see your message as nothing more than a comment in passing, and won’t feel any urgency to act on it. When the other says they will do something (or try to do something), the chances become greater that they will actually do what they have promised.
- Listen to the reaction: The last step is to be quiet, listen to any reaction the other may give, and if at all possible leave the choice up to them. When people are given the opportunity to make their own decisions, they feel in control, that their opinion counts and that they are taken seriously. By formulating feedback as a choice rather than a demand, you give them the power to act as capable, independent individuals. A self-made choice is far more likely to lead to them to actually follow through on that choice.
Feedback needs to be given in the correct dosage, meaning taking the other’s resilience into account. Extensive feedback using the rules above is effective when used occasionally and for meaningful issues; it certainly shouldn’t be used for every triviality.
Others can also give you feedback, regardless of whether or not you ask them for it. Even if they do or don’t follow the rules for giving feedback, if they address behavior you could change, then the best strategy is to thank them for their input or (at the least) tell them you will think about it. If you do decide to do something differently, you do the other more than justice by telling them what you did with their feedback. Whether you like it or not, as a leader you are a role model. The message you give is that it isn’t a bad thing when someone calls you on your behavior, and that everyone is in a position to change something in their behavior.
Just like receiving compliments, receiving feedback also requires certain skills. Firstly: Feedback shouldn’t be taken personally. You may assume the other has something to say about how you do something, not about you as a person. So it is good practice to suppress the tendency to get defensive. If you are only thinking up arguments why the feedback is unjust, you’re missing an important opportunity: The other is making an effort to offer you alternatives. Maybe those alternatives will work, maybe they won’t, but you will only know if you know what they are and try them out. That is why it is better to listen attentively and direct your attention to what you can do differently. In other words, take advantage of the alternatives offered you. It is also a sign of respect to thank the giver of feedback.
To recapitulate: Criticism usually disrupts in a negative way, largely as the receiver cannot do very much with it or about it. Feedback is a way to make wishes known in such a manner that the chance of the receiver being able to do something with it increases. The main characteristics of feedback are that concrete behavior is described and that specific, realistic and desired alternatives are suggested. If at all possible it is then left up to the receiver whether they actually want to do something with this feedback.
In August 2017, the Western Peninsula of Freetown, Sierra Leone experienced torrential rain, a series of flooding events and a large landslide. Over 500 people passed away, over 800 people have been reported missing and many more families were rendered homeless. Entire houses were swept away by the flood waters.
Many individuals and organization sprang into action, helping to provide emergency food and water. As one of the organizations active in Sierra Leone, Develop Africa is helping to provide psychosocial counseling, emergency supplies and activities for the kids. This is helping to meet the immediate needs of the victims.
Changing Future Outcomes
Beyond the initial response, in Freetown and globally, there is active discussion on how we can possibly prevent a reoccurrence or at the minimum reduce the impact of future disasters. The same is being done with regard to hurricane Harvey and its impact on Houston, Texas. Changing outcomes demands understanding, strategic analysis, and action.
Worldwide, cities, including Freetown, are under the threat of urbanization. 54 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase to 66 % by 2050 (UN, 2014). In the developing world, rapid and unplanned urbanization has resulted in dire and fatal consequences.
Due to inadequate city planning and housing, youths and migrants from the provinces are squatting in shanty towns in Freetown. They have built fragile shacks on the hillsides and in undesirable locations – often directly in river beds. Sadly, many locations have poor sanitation, no running water, limited or no hospital facilities, schooling etc. With thousands of people living in close proximity and squalor, diseases such as typhoid, Ebola, and cholera spread rapidly. These low-lying areas were the hardest hit by August flooding.
In Sierra Leone, deforestation has compounded the urbanization crisis. In the hills surrounding Freetown, trees and the vegetation have been indiscriminately cut down for firewood and unplanned housing. Deforestation is not only threatening biodiversity and ecosystem balance in the country but is also contributing to global climate change. In Freetown, the run-off water from the surrounding hills accentuates flooding and results in loss of property each year.
Fortunately, these challenges are not insurmountable. Here are a few thoughts on what we can do as global citizens that are committed to and looking for ways to make the world a better place.
1. Social Media For Good
Social media is a powerful and growing force that can help us tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. The Arab Spring is an excellent example of how social media can help change the world.
“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all. It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community,” says Shannon Dosemagen.
In late August 2017, social media played an important communication role during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. FaceBook and Twitter posts alerted authorities and volunteers on where help was desperately needed, acting as an alternative to 911 calls.
Rightly applied, social media can be a powerful force in highlighting the problems associated with urbanization. WhatsApp messages, Facebook videos/posts, billboards etc. can help to inform and educate the public on the dangers of dwelling in perilous and risk-prone areas. Online petitions, videos, and environmental studies can help to raise awareness of the perils and apply pressure on the government to take corrective action. An empowered public needs to realize that united, with the right tools, it can compel the government to take the necessary action.
As global citizens, we can promote awareness of the dangers of living in protected and risk-prone areas. We could help create educational content that will be shared on social media. We could also help organize online/offline accountability groups or set up agencies that will apply pressure on governments to provide alternative housing opportunities.
2. Reverse Urbanization:
One of the driving forces behind urbanization is the attraction of opportunities in urban areas. With that in mind, a key response would be the development of opportunities in new and strategic rural areas. Governments, NGO’s and individuals can help redirect migration by creating attractive mini-cities outside of the urban areas. When jobs, housing, hospitals, and schools are available outside the large cities, youths will be attracted to these locations.
As global citizens, we can help for instance by teaming together to launch or support new businesses, offering employment in rural areas. This could be for example helping to support a farm or setting up a processing plant that will preserve perishable harvests. One of the most sustainable methods of aid is investing in microfinance or micro credit opportunities. This cash injection helps small businesses to start or expand. It creates jobs and enables people to become self-sufficient. \
We could also volunteer our time helping to build new houses through organizations offering a Habitat for Humanity type of service. Volunteer service in rural schools, hospitals etc. will help to strengthen rural communities and make them more attractive to youths. In this regard, the Peace Corps should be highly commended for their efforts in supporting rural institutions. Furthermore, we could consider working full-time for a nonprofit organization/charity that addresses the challenges of urbanization.
3. Every One, Plant One Tree a Year
Throughout the planet, there is a growing need for reforestation and more green-friendly neighborhoods. Degradation and deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are cumulatively responsible for about 10% of net global carbon emissions (REDD+). According to the watchdog group Global Forest Watch, Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares of forest cover in the past decade, with loss accelerating in 2015.
Imagine what would happen if we could mobilize everyone over the age of 15 (for example) to plant one tree every year! As a global citizen, we can help to keep forefront in everyone’s minds the need for us all to take better care of the earth. We can promote online and offline the need to plant trees, to recycle and to make decisions that protect the earth.
In Freetown, there is the dire need to restore vegetation by planting trees in the surrounding hills. As a volunteer group, we could raise funds for a trip to plant 200 trees over 2 weeks. Alternatively, we could donate funds to cover the cost of purchasing seedlings and other tree-planting expenses.
In Freetown, by restoring vegetation and the forest, we will be helping to combat global warming. These efforts will help to reduce runoff water from the hills. The trees will help to reduce landslides and rock slides that have resulted in the loss of life. Reforestation is essential for the overall health and quality of life of the community.
In summary, the challenges of urbanization are real. With creative solutions, strategic planning and bold action, we can all do our part to mitigate the consequences of urbanization … and make the world a greener, safer and better place – for us all.
We invite you to join Develop Africa in providing hope to flood-affected victims by making an individual or business donation today.
This is a guest blog by Livvy Runyon, a videographer at Mayan Families. The original blog post can be found on Mayan Families’ blog.
Rosa’s Legacy: Marisela Advocates for Mayan Women through Education
(Photo by Livvy Runyon)
“Ever since I graduated high school, I had this longing to keep going, but with the resources I had, I couldn’t do it. I always had that in mind, though, to continue. That one day, I have to go. I have to go.”
Marisela speaks of higher education with fervor in her voice. Sitting outside of her home in El Barranco, Guatemala, her words strike a contrast with the dusty corn fields of the surrounding rural community. Marisela, the oldest child in her family of six, studies social sciences in the nearby town of Sololá. She dreams of becoming a teacher.
“To be able to talk about stories, to talk about productivity within the community, teaching children about politics and the history of our country – I love this. Nowadays there are teachers that have this opportunity to work but many of them don’t take it seriously, and so I want to be the difference.”
(Photo by Livvy Runyon)
Like most indigenous Guatemalans, Marisela has struggled to find the resources to continue studying. Only 53% of indigenous Mayans in Guatemala complete primary school, and by the age of 16, only 25% of indigenous girls are enrolled. With a lack of schools in rural communities like El Barranco, students must find a way to travel to larger towns, adding the cost of transportation to other expenses like tuition, shoes, and school supplies. With the average household income well below the poverty line, the majority of indigenous families cannot cover the cost of sending their child to school. If the resources are available, families with multiple children often must choose which one will receive an education. In the end it is almost always the son.
Marisela has found support from her family and now, from many others. She was recently chosen as one of the 2017 recipients of the Rosa Scholarship, an award specifically to cover the school costs for high-achieving, young indigenous women who are pursuing higher education. Now in her last year of university, Marisela describes this scholarship as a great fortune, “because now I am fulfilling my dreams.”
As a young, indigenous woman, Marisela’s opportunity to receive a degree is one that her mother’s generation never saw. For decades, Mayan women have faced discrimination by society and government alike; lacking even the most basic rights to work and participate in their communities. Even today, these obstacles persist in the daily lives of indigenous women across the country, and it is something Marisela aims to change.
“Many times they see us as Mayan women who aren’t capable of doing productive things. We have few opportunities and we hope that in the coming years this changes, that the opportunities change for us as women. Thankfully, the peace accords were signed* and this opened up the field, but we are hit once again with this situation of a lack of opportunities. Discrimination against indigenous women still exists.”
At 27, Marisela is on the brink of completing a university degree and beginning her career, traversing the difficult landscape of a poor economy, unsteady work opportunities, and a lack of educational and health resources that plague Guatemala. Where most might shy away from the progress still needed, Marisela’s eyes shine bright when she speaks of the future of her country.
“We have to make the changes. We have to think of what we can do. To have a different vision so that those who come after me have that access. We should see that the government is looking forward to the future of indigenous communities and guarantee the same rights not only for us, but also for the Garífunas, Xinca, ladinas, and mestizos. That we all have the same rights without discrimination against anyone.”
Photo by Livvy Runyon
For Marisela, the chance to attend university unlocks the door to her future and the future of many others. It is overwhelmingly evident that she holds a strong spirit and a burning fire to begin the work to change things, starting with her own education.
“If there isn’t education, there are no opportunities. But I believe, for me, it is the foundation and the best inheritance we have been given,” she says softly and powerfully.
To read the full interview with Marisela, click here.
The Rosa Scholarship was established in 2015 in partnership with Living on One. Inspired by Rosa Coj, a young indigenous woman featured in the Living on One Dollar documentary who was able to return to school to become a nurse, the scholarship helps other indigenous young women who are pursuing their dreams through higher education. To learn more about the scholarship, and support this year’s Rosa Scholarship recipients, visit their page.
To learn about more ways you can give, volunteer and help women like Marisela, check out the UniversalGiving website.
This summer, I joined UniveralGiving as a member of the Marketing Team. I applied for an internship at UniversalGiving after hearing CEO, and Duke alumna, Pamela Hawley speak at an event for women in entrepreneurship at Duke. I was looking for an opportunity to learn and make a genuine impact at a values-based company. At UniversalGiving I experienced how seemingly diverse skills and ideas harmoniously come together to create a successful business. Here are three things I learned:
Over the course of our weekly marketing meetings, our team developed our company brand. We curated content to promote our values of giving, volunteerism and international interconnectedness. We also branded ourselves as thought leaders on topics of interest to our community, creating dialogue on world issues. By publishing posts designed to spark conversation, showcasing our NGO partners doing meaningful work around the world and contributing to posts on others’ pages, our social media presence was about much more than increasing our business and traffic to our website.
Through my work, I learned that the value of a company’s social media extends well beyond self-promotion and provides an opportunity to create a values-aligned brand and authentic engagement and conversation.
- Full Circle Work:
Because of my quantitative background, my main responsibility on the marketing team was to produce weekly analytics reports for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Analytics. I monitored and tracked changes in likes, comments, shares, followers and user acquisition week after week.I, however, was able to better analyze trends and put them into perspective because I also helped curate the content. I evaluated the numbers within the context of our weekly social media campaign themes and nuances of our specific posts. Because UniversalGiving is a small company, I had a full circle view of our social media strategy; I created the posts, studied how they were received and recommended new strategies. Contributing to both the content and the analysis was immensely helpful allowing me to take on a prominent role in restructuring our social media tactical plan and creating a more effective strategy.
Through my work on the Marketing Team, I learned the value of having both a quantitative and creative skill set. By blending together these two seemingly disparate areas, I was able to be more effective in both.
- Precision Finance:
My quantitative background also took me out of the marketing world and into the Office of the CEO preparing financial reports for the CEO and CFO. Not only did I learn how to create professional products, but I got a close-up view into how the finances of a company are managed and the level of detail required for this line of work. My work on the financials involved preparing invoice spreadsheets for analysis, creating expense reports, and working on the three-year budget projection for an upcoming board meeting.
By gaining insight into the financial branch of a company, I learned how broad this area can be; it requires both extreme attention to detail and an ability to abstract into the future. Precision and prediction must blend together to create a dependable financial base for a company.
My experience at UniversalGiving demonstrated how diverse skills and ideas align and integrate to create stronger outcomes. This was a fitting lesson to learn as UniversalGiving is a social entrepreneurship venture; with a goal of both promoting values and maintaining financial stability, contrasts are built in its foundation.
In 2012, Melinda Gates embarked on a journey dedicated to what may be one of the world’s most controversial and vital parts of women’s rights activism — family planning. Her pledge was simple, a commitment to help 120 million women and girls around the globe access birth control in eight years.
Now approaching five years since its inception, Family Planning 2020, as the initiative is called, has reached 24 million women worldwide and helped them access safe, effective, and affordable birth control. Addressing that staggering number of 120 million, however, does not begin to scratch the surface of the worldwide crisis of unplanned pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of July 2017, 214 million women of reproductive age living in developing communities, and wanting to avoid pregnancy, are not using effective contraception. 214 million women — this is the true number reflecting the global unmet need for contraceptive resources.
The scale is massive. Yet for the sizeable impact, the better part of the discussion surrounding the push for global contraceptive access is kept out of the public sphere. Women worldwide are faced with limited choices in methods, as well as both cultural and religious opposition; the ability to acquire effective methods is rare in poverty-stricken areas, and those that are available often lack quality. Even beyond those restrictions, the discussion is an issue that many women consider a personal, private journey, something Gates empathizes with in her article “Keeping Our Promise to 120 Million Women and Girls” published this week for Family Planning 2020’s five-year milestone.
For such a taboo subject, however, the inaccessibility of contraceptives has drastically negative consequences for communities. First and foremost, it is a global health issue. Though a natural process, pregnancy has an unambiguous and taxing impact on the health and well-being of a woman and her body. Lack of family planning can increase the risks of health problems surrounding pregnancy, and even the risk of death especially in older women who encounter augmenting complications during childbirth.
Unplanned pregnancies are more likely to lead desperate women to dangerous and unhygienic abortion attempts; poorly timed births from unplanned pregnancies currently contribute to some of the world’s highest infant mortality rates. According to the United Nations Population Fund, if all women in developing areas without access to contraceptives used modern methods, approximately 35 million abortions and 76,000 maternal mortalities would be prevented every year. But it is not just an issue concerning women. Since the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, the disease has run devastatingly rampant, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa with less access to contraceptives.
The mortality and orphaned children rates have skyrocketed, and nearly 40 years later, the epidemic still persists. Among women living with HIV, access to family planning methods mitigates the risk of inadvertent pregnancies and reduces the number of affected babies. Among the greater population, however, contraceptive methods such as male and female condoms (when used properly) safeguard against the spread of the disease between parties. The conclusion? It is a global, rather than a women’s, health issue.
What many around the globe have yet to realize, moreover, is that the debate surrounding contraceptives goes beyond the world of social and moral concerns, and touches the realm of cold, hard figures. For developing countries, and developed countries seeking to leave a positive footprint on this planet, this should be seen as an economic discussion. At the macroeconomic level, studies have shown that reducing exponential population growth helps spur socio-economic development in some countries, the best known example being that of the Asian Economic Miracle.
As the study goes, between 1960 and 1990, the five economies experiencing most rapid growth were all found in East Asia — South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Yet simultaneously, there was a decline in the average number of childbirths — an average of six at the beginning of this period to an average of approximately two at the end. When further investigated, analysts agreed that the experience of East Asian countries suggested the downward childbearing trend lessened dependency burdens and supported high savings rates. On the smaller scale, a woman who has access to contraceptives has fewer children; she can devote more resources to each child and improve their respective futures; she has the capability, time, and energy to re-enter the workforce.
Align that hypothetical trajectory with the scale of the problem — 214 million more individuals with the ability to contribute to the local, national, and even global economy — and it is evident why countries, especially developing ones, should have a vested interest in contraceptives. Access to family planning is paramount to lifting both individual families, and in turn nations, out of poverty.
In “Keeping Our Promise to 120 Million Women and Girls,” Gates writes about how she came to grasp the necessity of contraceptives in the global community after growing up in a family where their importance was not emphasized:
“Everything changed when Bill and I launched our foundation, and I started spending time with women in the world’s poorest places. Everywhere I went, the conversation turned to contraceptives. I met women who were getting pregnant too young, too old, and too often for their bodies to handle. I met women who were desperate not to get pregnant again because they couldn’t afford to feed or care for the children they already had. In Malawi, everyone I met knew someone who had died in pregnancy. In India, I asked a group of women if anyone had lost a child, and every single woman raised her hand.”
Since the 1990s, contraceptive use has increased, albeit marginally — between 1990 and 2015, WHO calculates global usage has risen from 54% to 57.4%. It is a statistic that does not reflect a plateaued need, but an alarming lack of access for a world who claims it exists a hyper-modern age. Gates’ experiences, however, are not statistics.
The stories she has heard and the ones she has shared — they are personal and human. They are the eyes, the words, and the heartbreak of women across the globe; they are the eyes, the words, and the heartbreak of their families. They are 214 million women we should be pursuing with an unfettered tenacity and equipping with brighter futures to create a better, more productive world that is in all of our best interests.
To read Gates’ article, click Family Planning 2020 to find out more or learn about other positives developments associated with family planning like “Keeping Our Promise to 120 Million Women and Girls” and Global Impact of Family Planning.