DAKAR (Reuters) - The Horn of Africa food crisis shows the need to provide the world's poor with better access to family planning as part of efforts to prevent future tragedies, the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said.
The United Nations has declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia, where 3.7 million are going hungry, with over 12 million people now in need of urgent aid throughout areas including northern Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
Despite regular food shortages and high infant mortality, the region's population has more than doubled since it was hit by major droughts in 1974, spurred by factors such as limited contraception use and a tradition of large families.
While stressing the root cause of the crisis was the recent rain failures, UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said it highlighted the plight of those living in parts of the world where the land struggles to support human life.
"We need to improve food production ... and to work with member states to ensure women and particularly young girls have access to education, including sexual education, and access to health services and reproductive health services including family planning," Osotimehin told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Emphasising the voluntary nature of the family planning policies supported by his agency, he said the aim was to help women "to have children when they want to have them and choose a number which they can afford within their own context".
While population growth in the Horn of Africa is cited by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and specialists such as U.S. development economist Jeffrey Sachs as a factor in the current crisis, family planning remains a sensitive area.
The lack of welfare systems across much of Africa and high infant mortality foster cultures in which high birth rates and large families are seen by many parents as a way of ensuring that some children survive to support them in old age.
Yet that can also make it harder to ensure individual children within a family get enough food and access to the schooling which could break the vicious circle of poverty.
Osotimehin said the UNFPA estimated 215 million women in poor countries lacked proper access to family planning, a need which if met would cut each year the number of unintended pregnancies by over two-thirds to 22 million and halve the number of infant deaths to 1.5 million.
Pointing to the relatively high level of access to family planning in wealthier Muslim countries such as Iran or Tunisia, Osotimehin said religion did not appear to be the main factor determining its prevalence.
"It tends to relate more to cultural (factors) than religion. It is about the status of women, which is culturally determined," said Osotimehin, a former Nigerian health minister who said he saw such attitudes evolving in his own country and neighbours such as Niger, a regular victim of drought.
The UNFPA had its U.S. funding restored by President Barack Obama after it was cut by a series of Republican administrations over accusations that it supported coercive birth control -- allegations it has denied.
Osotimehin said the extra funds needed to extend family planning across the poor world totalled $3.6 billion, against the agency's estimate that doing so would cut the costs of maternal and infant health by $5.1 billion.
He said the debt problems facing governments in the United States and Europe and the competition from other concerns such as the fight against HIV/AIDS or climate change had in recent years dampened funding levels.
"The overseas development aid cake is fixed," he noted. "You have to make your case in the most compelling manner to make sure you get (a) slice of the cake."