The Triple Bottom Line: Investing in Women and Girls

Oct 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Family Planning, Reproductive Rights/Women's Rights, Social Justice

By Suzanne York,

One of the biggest returns on investment for people and the planet is supporting the health of women and girls, especially in terms of voluntary family planning services. As we recognize the International Day of the Girl this October 11th, it is a good time to go beyond traditional development ideas and consider smart, cost-effective initiatives for truly helping girls in all countries.

For the United Nations, this day is meant “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

A recent seminar at the Social Capital 2012 conference in San Francisco, California, sponsored by the Aspen Global Health and Development, part of the Aspen Institute, lived up to that statement, by discussing the benefits of investment in reproductive health. The session was titled Stepping on the Third Rail: Social Capital Markets and Investing in Family Planning, and focused on the need for family planning and how it can be a great investment from many perspectives.

Karl Hofmann, President and CEO of Population Services International (PSI), firmly believes that women’s and girls’ health is not only a good social investment, but an “incredibly powerful” one. Women’s reproductive health and family planning touch upon so many other issues, and we will not be able to seriously address other pressing concerns without dealing with need for family planning.

Hofmann and Dana Hovig, CEO of Marie Stopes International (MSI), both said this should be talked about within the social capital sector because 215 million women want contraceptives but can’t find it, afford it, or trust it. Perhaps most importantly, or frustratingly, the solutions are out there. We have the solutions, but as Hovig said, we need resources, financing, and political will. And more people are beginning to think that social investment in family planning is the way to go. (note: the Guttmacher Institute uses the estimate of 222 million women)

Timing is everything, and Julie Bernstein, Senior Communications Officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, feels that the global community is now re-engaged on population and women’s reproductive health issues due to her organization’s sponsored summit on family planning this past summer in London. That gathering of world leaders, policymakers, development specialists, funders and others “put women back into the heart of the global health agenda”, according to Bernstein.

One of the reasons to target social entrepreneurs, noted both Hoffman and Hovig, is that they often have scaleable solutions that can be implemented fairly quickly, or at least more so than large government entities, and often reach more people.

Social impact bonds are one type of social innovation that could produce results. Astrid Zweynert, Deputy Editor with Thomson Reuters Foundation, said it is a way to raise social investment to pay for a public service. Here, the social investor provides the investment up front, and they only get a return if the desired outcome is achieved. Marie Stopes International, considered a social enterprise, is already raising financing for voluntary family planning services via social impact bonds.

Zweynert wondered why all this social capital innovation couldn’t be used for family planning, as well as use social networks for promoting family planning services. Hoffman said that by working with private sector providers, more people can be reached, and through more innovation. He also suggested performance-based financing, where investors buy future outcomes (with a social objective) and the marketplace will find who is most successful.

Why is this so important for girls? Hoffman noted that what happens in a very few countries (mostly Sub-Saharan Africa) will determine if we grow to over 10 billion people on the planet. And by going the social capital route, the focus isn’t only on profits but is on the triple bottom line – financial, social and environmental impacts. “We are not in demographic handcuffs” he noted, “but we will be if we don’t reach the 215 million women who want contraceptives.”

The panelists were asked about how they might utilize a hypothetical $2 million investment. Hoffman from PSI said he would target Niger, which has the highest fertility in the world, with a social marketing effort on contraception to raise usage rates and produce measurable results. Bernstein from Gates Foundation noted the difficulties for women to get to health clinics. She would replicate what Ethiopia has done with community health workers who go door-to-door and get to know the women. Ethiopia has had much success expanding health service delivery, especially in rural areas.

As for Hovig of MSI, he would have a Chinese manufacturer produce generic condoms and get it to retail outlets in Africa. The manufacturer would make money, women would get contraceptives, investors would get their investment back, and even MSI would make some money.

One of the forces behind organizing this seminar is Peggy Clark, Executive Director of Aspen Global Health and Development. Realizing that family planning and women’s reproductive health has been a third rail issue, she has nonetheless had the vision to see that there is a big need and market for family planning services.

As was often stated during the panel, we know what works, and we know what women want. This is an investment that will pay big dividends for girls on the International Day of the Girl and way, way beyond.


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies/

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