Interview with Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA

Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund

19 February 2013

[Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin died on 4 June 2017 at the age of 68.]

The growing involvement of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a range of issues related to population and development, sexual and reproductive rights, maternal and child health, family planning, early childhood issues, gender equality and female genital mutilation, just to mention a few, has put the agency centre-stage in the achievement of several of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the globally-agreed anti-poverty targets.

The importance of population issues was highlighted in 2011 when world population surpassed 7 billion. The media attention and dialogue the milestone fostered generated a wider understanding of the way in which human rights-based policies - such as universal access to reproductive health care and family planning, investment in education, and the empowerment of women and youth - can impact population trends.

In a UN News Centre interview with Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, and former Health Minister for Nigeria, spoke on his vision and priorities for the agency; as well what has beeFamily planning is probably the most important intervention you can give to liberate a woman’s energy and life.n accomplished since his appointment began in 2011.

UN News Centre: On February 6 we marked the first ever International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  How is the fight against FGM progressing? 

Babatunde Osotimehin: I think that it is progressing extremely well.  We have in the last few years been able to work with Member States, communities within those Member States, civil society organizations and professionals to stop the practice in a large number of communities.  In 2012 alone, we were able to stop it in around 1,800 communities in the world.  And I think that’s very commendable.  We also have this relationship with UNICEF, which enables us to do the work on the ground, and as at our end, we’ll continue to push this.  The resolution adopted late last year by the General Assembly has elevated this issue to the point that FGM is now a worldwide concern and represents a global concentrated effort to try to stop this odious, totally unnecessary practice in the world.

UN News Centre: What are the major obstacles that hinder your work?

Babatunde Osotimehin: The major obstacles still relate to culture, to the fact that this is something that has been there for a long time which hinders our ability to reach the last mile, to be able to talk to those who are the perpetrators of this.  But we are talking to professionals, making sure that we create alternative employment for those who do it, and ensuring that we educate communities about the harm.  Because it’s not just an innocuous procedure, it’s something that actually causes harm to women.  And I think at the end of the day it also speaks to the status of women in our communities. Why must you violate a woman?  Because you think she would be in a better position?  That’s for her to decide – that’s not for you to decide.  I think we have to keep working on that.

UN News Centre: We know that there is a social and cultural heritage that has nothing to do with religion that continues to prevail in some communities.  How would you deal with this? What are the steps to raise awareness against this?

Mr. Osotimehin with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo (centre), at an event advocating for the end of female genital mutilation. UN Photo/E. Debebe

Babatunde Osotimehin: UNFPA is best suited for this, because we are the United Nations Population Fund. We are a country-focused organization.  We are a community-focused organization. And for every intervention on the ground, what we actually start with is a community dialogue, being able to engage interlocutors that have credibility within a community.  Explain to them what the issues are and try to get a buy in, making sure that after we leave, the message is sustained.  We can go in and talk about this and work with practitioners, work with the medical staff there.  But that’s not enough.  What is important is that we understand the governance structure of communities.  We understand the folks who are the key elements in the community.  Talk to them. Get them to understand. Let them appreciate and accept that this is something that needs to happen. 

UN News Centre: Which countries have achieved their goals in fighting FGM?  

Babatunde Osotimehin: I think many countries have.  Kenya has done very well. We’ve made some progress in North Africa.  We’ve also made some progress in West Africa.  But I think, it’s not enough to be naming countries, but what is important is that we continue to create the awareness and work with groups on the ground.  But it’s not just the Government; it’s also civil society.  Being able to work with women’s groups, girls’ movements, youth movements to get them to begin to advocate against this.  Because apart from being able to get it away from communities, it’s also nice to have a legal framework.  And I think those are the things that we do.

UN News Centre: You just returned from a major conference in Addis Ababa on accelerated reduction of maternal mortality.  Could you please share with us the outcome of this conference?

Babatunde Osotimehin: Yes.  Africa today still bears the largest burden of maternal mortality in the world; whereas Africa accounts for 15 per cent of the world population, almost 50 per cent or even more of the maternal mortality burden is in Africa.  So the implication of this is that we need to do far more work to stop women dying giving birth.  UNFPA had an event on 27th January 2013 where we were working to support the African Union Commission, at the invitation of the President of the African Union, and we had an unprecedented attendance of 52 countries out of the 54, where 31 were represented by heads of state and government.   That tells me that this is something that Africa cares about.  

Mr. Osotimehin speaks with UNTV about UNFPA's focus in 2013 (19 Feb 2013). UNTV

We will work with each government to improve several things.  The first is to provide and improve family planning, because we know that we can reduce maternal mortality by 30 per cent if in fact women have access to family planning.  We will also help governments to train health workers so that women can access skilled attendants, and we’ll also ensure that we’ll work with governments on their supply chain system.  So whatever is needed in the remotest part of Africa, we’ll get there. If we can succeed with countries in doing that, we’ll reduce maternal mortality substantially.  Now our focus before 2015 which is when the MDGs are supposed to be achieved, is to reduce this considerably.  I’m glad that there’s enthusiasm on the ground in Africa and subsequent to that meeting with heads of state, we’re also scheduling meetings with ministers of finance and ministers of health, who will take this forward.

UN News Centre: We just mentioned family planning.  Are there any obstacles to this work in Africa in particular? 

Babatunde Osotimehin: Family planning, let me state, is the most important, life-saving intervention you can provide a girl or a woman.  For too long, we have not been able to provide universal access to it.  Last year, we had a resurgence of interest in family planning.  So I’m glad that the world now is moving and is trying to provide family planning to women and girls around the world.  Now, the reasons why women have not had it are of course access, cost – their inability to afford – and, to an extent, there are some cultural factors which might prevent them from accessing family planning.  But for each one of those things, we are addressing it, and we’re trying to make sure that women can be liberated and can access family planning, so that their lives can be saved.  They can also choose when they want to have children, how many they want to have and at what interval they’re going to have them, because that choice situation is very empowering for women, and, in that sense, they would have a family they can attempt to look after.

As the world population neared a new milestone in October 2011, Mr. Osotimehin launched of "7 Billion Actions" initiative with world leaders from diverse sectors. UN Photo/P.Filgueiras

UN News Centre: Family planning is also one of the factors of development, in which touches on all kinds of issues including climate change.  How is UNFPA focusing on that in its effort to spread awareness of family planning?

Babatunde Osotimehin: Well, family planning, as I said – and let me add, contraception – is probably the most important intervention you can give to liberate a women’s energy and life. We talk many times about women in unions.  But there are many women who are not in unions who want contraception – they’re not married, but they don’t want to get pregnant.

UN News Centre: I would like to move to another conference that you recently attended and that is the World Economic Forum at Davos.  What issues did you stress at this conference? 

Babatunde Osotimehin: The Davos Summit had always talked about the issues of economies and money and government and governance, and democracy.  We have absolutely no problems with that.  But what the Forum has never really addressed is the issue of people, population, the dynamics of population.  For instance, the world is aging.  How are the governments of the world adapting and providing for those who are aging?  Also 60 to 70 per cent of their population is below the age of 30.  How are those economies ensuring that they can take advantage of that demographic dividend?

So population dynamics is one thing that we talk about.  We also go forth to ensure that we talk of job creation for young people, making sure that they have access to health, to quality education, to be able to participate not only economically, but politically in their countries.  I’m glad that I attended one session with heads of state and government and heads of industry and the President of the World Bank and the Chief Executive of the IMF; and they were all talking about what should be the priorities for 2015, and youth and youth employment were among those topics.  Since that lies within the mandate of UNFPA, that’s something that we’re very happy about.

Mr. Osotimehin talks to young people who use 'youth friendly' reproductive health services in Colombia. Photo: UNFPA Colombia/Leonardo Cifuentes

UN News Centre: Mr. Osotimehin, you have been the Executive Director of UNFPA since 2011.  UNFPA has linked priorities in sexual and reproductive health, family planning, reproductive rights and reducing maternal mortality.  Have the concerns been expanded, narrowed, or linked differently?

Babatunde Osotimehin: What we’ve done, when I started early in January 2011, we had a review of the world the way it was, and we decided it was better for us to focus on maternal health and young people, in a very linked way.  But of course, you cannot talk of maternal health and young people without looking at the issue of population dynamics, without looking at gender, without looking at rights, without looking at the economy.  So it is all linked.  But those would be our focus, in terms of populations we’re trying to reach.  Now, over the last two years, we refocused the organization to direct its attention to reproductive health, reproductive rights of young people and women and we have called attention of the world to the issue of population dynamics.  Our “Seven Billion” campaign was a very effective campaign.  We brought the world to think about how each one of us in the seven billion would have quality of life, and I think that was very good.

UN News Centre: What are the particular focus areas for 2013?

Mr. Osotimehin talks about the global population reaching 7 billion and UN urges action to ensure development for all (26 Oct 2011). UNTV

Babatunde Osotimehin: In 2013, we’re going to drill down and make sure more women have access to family planning, but have access to family planning within an integrated reproductive health services programme, ensuring that rights are protected and that there is quality of service.  That’s one.  The second of course is that we’re also going to expand our work with young people.  This year we’re co-chairing the inter-agency network for young people, for youth, in the United Nations.  We’re going to take that as a platform, to advance the work for young people.  We’re glad the Secretary-General has appointed a youth envoy, who has worked with us, from Jordan.  So we will take this forward and ensure that we protect the issue of  young people, particularly their rights, their reproductive health and access to services, and ensure that we can fold this into the conversation that is going on now for the post-2015.  Young people, women issues, their rights and their health must be front and centre in the post-2015 development agenda. 

UN News Centre: How do you see UNFPA issues fitting into the post-2015 development agenda?

Babatunde Osotimehin: In Cairo in 1994, the world got the Programme of Action of the World Conference on Population and Development.  These countries decided that reproductive health and rights of people should be what propels reproductive health.  And that propels UNFPA and the work we’re doing since then.  Now it’s going to be 20 years.  We hope that in 2014, we’ll have the high-level meeting at which this will be presented.  In the meantime, the outcomes of the review will be fed into the 2015 process, that is, what would it look like beyond 2015. 

Two things I would like to comment on.  The first thing is the MDGs, constructed in 2000, have really done the United Nations a world of good.  It’s a very good brand.  And I think what we need to do going forward is not to dump it but to transition it. But of course, expand it to ensure that other things can be accommodated there.  The second thing is that there were some areas that we did not place emphasis the last time.  The first is human rights, the second is equity.  That should play in the new development process.

Mr. Osotimehin opening a UNFPA photo exhibition "Too Young to Wed," with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left) and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

But the final thing I want to say, and this is advocacy, is the way you look at the MDGs as they are today, the MDG 5, which speaks to the issue of maternal mortality, or maternal health, has two parts.  One is MDG 5a; the other is MDG 5b.  The 5b speaks to reproductive health services, particularly family planning, universal access to these.  This was not included in 2000.  This was what we had to negotiate.  It was the only MDG that was negotiated.  But we negotiated, and it came into being in 2007.  So it has only run for five years plus.  So it has to be rolled over, if we are going to talk about equity in the world today.

UN News Centre: What is most frustrating in your job?

Babatunde Osotimehin: Frustrating…I’m too much of an optimist to allow frustrations to get to me.  But maybe the frustration I might have is that I want things to happen quickly and sometimes they don’t happen as fast as I want them to. 

UN News Centre: Are there any achievements that you are particularly proud of?

Babatunde Osotimehin: I think there are several.  I talked about the Seven Billion campaign – that was very good.  We’ve also had the campaign about the girl child, calling attention to it.  We have mobilized the world to see that family planning is an important intervention and the world is listening.  We are rolling out action plans to be able to provide greater access to women and girls for family planning.  We have worked with our other partners to address maternal health and reduction of maternal mortality.  We are also working with our partners to speak against and work for and against violence against women.  So there are many things that we’ve done that we’re very proud of and I think that UNFPA is better positioned today than ever before.