Photo: United Nations

United Nations Dialogue About Family Planning Services

In the lead-up to the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, Essential Partners (EP), known then as the Public Conversations Project, facilitated three days of preparatory dialogues on policies that addressed the design, delivery, evaluation, and advocacy of family planning services internationally.

The intention of the meeting was to identify and examine areas of agreement and difference among the diverse sectors. Twenty-seven leaders and experts from the US delegation attended, all professionals whose areas of focus intersected with population policy, family planning services, or women's reproductive health.

The goal was to represent a range of expertise as well as a diverse array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They hoped to model and wrestle with the complicated issues that would be discussed during the upcoming UN Conference in Cairo.

Many hopes, one overarching fear

The first portion of the weekend was spent identifying and naming the hopes and fears participants entered with. All had made a significant commitment, and some a significant sacrifice, to attend.

Many of the concerns raised could be summarized by the phrase “polite, but insincere.” Would these leaders actually make themselves vulnerable enough, behind the armor of expertise and authority, to hear and understand differing views? Would there be any point of genuine connection that would allow greater understanding of their differences and agreements?

On the other hand, the participants also expressed an extraordinary range of hopes and goals. Among them were:

  • To identify specific areas of dysfunctional communication and conflicting styles, so they no longer present obstacles to progress.
  • To push at the edges of this vital, global conversation.
  • To understand what language slams the door on collaboration.
  • To exist in a creative tension, both across different views and within likeminded cohorts.
  • To learn how we in the United States can work most effectively with developing countries.
  • To develop more effective methods of addressing cultural and religious diversity.

The group named several intersecting complications, such as the dynamics of gender, class, and ethnicity; global migration; climate change and environmental factors; and the relationship of a population to its political leaders, population growth and carrying capacity, North vs South, the impact of poverty. 

Over the course of the day, these leaders and experts began to see how their own life experiences and cultural contexts shaped the way they used their expertise and hindered their ability to talk substantively about real differences of views and values.

Several participants noted the unique generosity of spirit that EP’s dialogue approach created.

They were all more willing, they said, to stretch themselves for the sake of another view. They felt a sense of “reciprocity and equality among people with different views,” which helped build a new level of trust, and let them feel understood and heard for the first time. 

“Every barrier that was there was completely broken,” said one participant. “It was like: ‘OK, what you're saying may be different, but there is no feeling of your being unequal’.”

One person remarked that he had pre-stereotyped some of the other participants and was surprised to find that he related to their positions, which were far less radical than he supposed. 

"The humanness and goodness of those on the other side,” said one woman, “was more accessible.”

Lasting global impact

Weeks after the meeting, participants were asked to reflect on the ways their work with Essential Partners had reverberated in their professional lives.

Almost all of the attendees talked about the new depth of care with which they communicated views and goals, a deeper appreciation for the validity and earnestness of different views, as well as a new recognition of the importance of diverse perspectives.

One participant, for instance, said that he was now working to broaden the range of religious voices at the UN Conference, to ensure that the religious leadership exhibited the full array of views on family planning, population growth, and women’s rights.

“There is a new quality of interaction among the participants,” said another attendee, “I am carrying over the spirit of the dialogues by not looking for a confrontation, but rather, trying to recognize what other people are saying and to build more a comprehensive concept or program.”

One participant observed that they’re more inclined to ask for more background and context before making a decision. This allows them to create a space in which people can discuss, and perhaps find resolutions for their differences.

“I have become more analytical,” said another, “more tolerant of other points of view.  I understand better that human beings are the result of the environment in which we have lived and the information we have gotten.  When I saw that many people didn't think exactly like I do on different topics and learned why they think differently, I became more tolerant and less sure that what I say is always right."

Yet another participant explained, "It was an entry point into a new community of activism and leadership. I think I have a greater appreciation of why [population and reproductive health] has been so contentious. The dialogues have given me access to a whole new body of knowledge and experience and perspective that has enlarged me professionally and personally."