01/31/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

The Unsung Heroine of Economic Development

This week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter, all about the myths that block progress for the poor. Economic development is a complicated puzzle, and there are no easy solutions. But as the letter points out, there are things we can do -- and things that many in developing countries are already doing -- to fight poverty and encourage growth.

One of these that often gets overlooked, and that has also become a signature issue for Melinda Gates, is family planning. Right now, 222 million, or one in four women of reproductive age in the developing world, do not want to become pregnant, but need modern contraception.

Fertility decline -- and by extension, family planning -- is the unsung heroine of economic development. Not only is family planning a fundamental right that improves the health of women and their children, it is a cost-effective investment that is the foundation for a better educated workforce, rising incomes and other macroeconomic benefits. Family planning improves individual and household wellbeing by helping families reduce the overall number of children they have. And we know that when women have access to the full range of contraceptive options, they tend to choose smaller families. This increases their ability to earn an income outside of the home or otherwise participate in their communities.

These benefits are also passed on to the next generation. When couples choose to have fewer children, it frees up household economic resources for investments in each child's health and education. A young woman who can avoid an unintended pregnancy is more likely to stay in school and to later command higher wages. In just a few generations, it is easy to see how people's lives could be transformed.

Family planning is also critical to the demographic dividend -- the economic growth that may result from changes in a country's age structure. When women have smaller families, there are fewer children and elderly for the working-age population to support. Combined with expanding employment opportunities for workers, this can increase incomes per person and spur a country's total economic growth.

South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand experienced spectacular economic growth during the second half of the 20th century, much of which was due to the demographic dividend. With the right investments, Ghana, Senegal and Ethiopia could achieve the same.

Given the amazing scope of these benefits, investing in family planning should be common sense. Yet there is a 78 percent shortfall in funding for family planning globally by international donors and developing country governments. The result? Stalls and even reversals in fertility decline in some countries like Mozambique and Nigeria.

Last summer, at the London Summit on Family Planning donors and developing country governments committed to reduce by half the number of women without access to modern contraception by 2020. The simple fact is all donors will need to dramatically increase funding for family planning if that is to become a reality.

But some policymakers are listening.

Last year, Malawi launched a maternal health and safe motherhood initiative which aims to provide universal access to reproductive health services. Joyce Banda, Malawi's president, has declared: "As a mother, as a survivor of a maternal health complication, and as a female political leader, I will do everything I can to make sure that all women have access to family planning information, services and supplies."

She is not alone.

Rwandan Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi and Fmr. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have gone on record in support of family planning and the importance of pursuing it in tandem with other policies such as education.

This is good news. We need more political will and more family planning champions like Banda, Habumuremyi and Zenawi to ensure that governments keep their promises to women. We know that these women and their families will pay it forward in ways that will reap tremendous dividends.