Data Are Essential: Commentary on the Not Without FP Forum

PRB’s commitment to data-driven policies that support effective family planning and reproductive health programs and services has been our ballast for nearly a half-century. Data are essential to sound decisionmaking and key to efforts to achieve development goals. Yet, while good data are essential, it is through partnerships that family planning data are contextualized and localized. The power of data to inform good decisions requires investment in people, partnerships between data-producing and data-using organizations, and effective innovations to ensure the right data get to the right people in the right formats at the right time.

PRB joins the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) and partners globally to advance family planning and reproductive health priorities to the center of international development. ICFP’s recent virtual forum, Not Without FP, emphasized the importance of data-informed policy and program decisionmaking. As family planning advocates weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we face an emergency, with women struggling to access services, health systems juggling diverted resources, supply chain disruptions, and practitioners adjusting to best serve women and families. In this context, data remain our ballast.

Family Planning Loud and Clear

A key message from the Not Without FP forum is that family planning is a cost-effective lifesaver that empowers women and girls when it is rights-based and voluntary. Including family planning as an essential service of universal health coverage (UHC) will help meet Target 3.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that calls for universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information, and education, and integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs.

The forum also issued a clear message about resiliency. To mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the family planning community has already pivoted—sharing tools, resources, lessons, best practices, innovative solutions, and new directions that work. Family planning advocates have even seen positive policy changes during the crisis that should be sustained. For example, some countries have allowed dispensing of multiple months of contraceptive supply.

Data Are Essential to Good Policymaking

Several themes emerged from the forum that affirm PRB’s strategic priorities: data for effective decisionmaking, strong partnerships, social accountability, and innovation. Presenters shared data demonstrating how service disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic have affected pregnancy and childbearing patterns, as well as contraceptive coverage and unmet need. They highlighted key policy actions for the global family planning agenda, including adapting data collection and analysis methods and sharing what we learn about the crisis in real time to inform future decisionmaking.

To help move this data into action, PRB’s signature policy communication program provides knowledge, innovative tools, and training to researchers, advocates, partners, and others to strengthen their capacity to use data effectively and responsibly and package it appropriately for non-technical audiences. PRB’s Policy Communication Toolkit and research-to-action process, as well as research translation and knowledge management expertise, provide the pathway to ensuring that sound data and relevant research are available for evidence-based decisionmaking. Elevating family planning as an essential service in the SDGs, UHC plans, and national development goals requires both an enabling policy environment and decisionmakers armed with country-level data.

Partnerships Localize Data and Support Accountability

The Not Without FP forum’s focus on partnerships underscored PRB’s long-standing collaborations with government planners, community organizations, and advocates. Partners often propose data-responsive, viable, and context-specific solutions that only they can envision. PRB collaborations are deliberately informed by and responsive to partners’ priorities, positioning them as agents of change in their communities and organizational development. As moderators of the forum’s community session on the demographic dividend, PRB drew from our partnerships with multiple organizations to convey the potential benefits of a demographic dividend to countries’ economic growth. Most recently, we joined with the National Population Councils (NPCs) of Ghana and Uganda to create data-driven advocacy materials to advance family planning priorities and funding in subnational development plans.

Partnerships and accountability go hand in hand. PRB strengthens partners’ capacity to monitor their governments’ implementation of policy commitments. We believe that youth are powerful agents of change and drivers of social accountability when equipped with effective communication tools and strategies. Who can make a stronger case in Kenya for youth-friendly family planning services than a Kenyan teenager? At the forum, we presented our popular, innovative Youth Family Planning Policy Scorecard, an interactive feature that tracks a range of program and policy indicators that support youth access to and use of contraceptives.

PRB also promotes media-driven accountability. For more than 25 years, we have trained journalists through our well-known Women’s Edition program to report on pressing issues affecting women’s health, leveraging the media to hold government leaders accountable. One of our most popular sessions, Math 101, helps journalists understand and use data for more effective reporting.

Innovation Bolsters Effectiveness of Data Use

Effective innovations are critical to ensure data are targeted and delivered to maximize their value to decisionmaking. PRB is a leader in data visualization and innovation that propel policymakers to act. As a global technical leader in advancing understanding of complex data on contraceptive use dynamics, we developed a data visualization tool, Choices and Challenges, to advance the use and interpretability of these data. A series of policy dialogues with high-level decisionmakers in five USAID partner countries will promote use of calendar and service delivery data to inform policy interventions that address barriers to contraceptive continuation among women who wish to delay or avoid pregnancy.

Local Approaches Are an Emerging Priority

The most important emerging priority from the Not Without FP forum is to harness the power of approaches that apply local data and insights to family planning decisions. PRB Kenya has developed a successful trifold approach to budget advocacy and accountability in the context of devolution that brings together data for effective decisionmaking, strong partnerships, social accountability, and innovative tools.

PRB Kenya’s comprehensive approach to mobilize domestic financing for family planning and reproductive, maternal, neonatal, child, and adolescent health includes capacity strengthening, continuous partnering and mentoring, and catalyzing public participation in budget hearings and other convenings and through media engagement. The approach targets national- and county-level decisionmakers, civil society organizations (CSOs), including youth champions, and journalists, leveraging existing opportunities to equip them with the skills to participate effectively in county planning and budgeting processes. This approach recognizes the key role of CSOs to keep policymakers accountable, fill capacity gaps, and provide meaningful engagement for citizens while ensuring local decisionmaking for sustainability.

What’s on the Horizon?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, how do family planning advocates continue to promote reflection and deep adaptive learning? Data are again essential. PRB recently published a rapid evidence summary that identifies the pandemic’s impact on service demand and use as well as lessons from response strategies for family planning and reproductive health and the broader women’s and child health and nutrition sectors. Findings point to negative effects but focus on potentially promising strategies.

The pandemic has demonstrated that governments and individuals can take strong and rapid action in the face of an overwhelming challenge. Governments, CSOs, and partners have shown ingenuity and dedication with new approaches to offset the effects of supply chain disruption, hesitation to visit facilities, fewer financial resources, and lockdown measures. These new approaches are likely to remain in place and even extend into post-pandemic health systems, perhaps becoming a new normal. We need to amplify recent innovations and ground our work in the data that inform our ability to pursue a healthy and equitable world for women and families.