The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is this year celebrating 50 years of its formation and 2019 also marks 25 years of the International Conference on Population and Development. Wanjohi Kabukuru profiles Mabingue Ngom – UNFPA Regional Director for West and Central Africa and an ardent champion of leveraging the youth demographic dividend, women’s rights and healthy planned families.
The regional director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for West and Central Africa, Mabingue Ngom cannot forget that day in July 2017 in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. The Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, was addressing some 1200 delegates attending the opening session of the first ever Regional Symposium on “Islam, Demographic Dividend and Family Welfare”.
The meeting had been organised by the Chadian government and the influential Superior Council for Islamic Affairs with support coming from UNFPA and the World Bank.
Suddenly President Deby veered off his prepared speech and his words remain embedded in Ngom’s mind two years later. “I congratulate UNFPA for having organized this symposium and having succeeded in making Muslim religious leaders admit to the importance of the demographic dividend and family planning.” President Deby said. “UNFPA succeeded where the government had difficulty reaching a consensus. I exhort the members of government to work with the Superior Council for Islamic Affairs to implement the recommendations and to transmit the message to the grassroots in all the regions.”
“If we bring about the demographic dividend by improving opportunities for young people, allowing mothers to plan their pregnancies and making childbirth safe for mother and child, the overall effect will make life better for the entire population – and we will, indeed, have helped ensure a life of dignity for all.”
To Ngom, the Senegalese born UN official, this open admission by President Deby was uplifting and yet humbling. For more than a decade he has been the continent’s foremost ambassador of capitalizing on the demographic dividend. Now his efforts were bearing fruit.
“If you want to change things and more so behavioural change, you must engage people at their level.” Ngom says. “If we bring about the demographic dividend by improving opportunities for young people, allowing mothers to plan their pregnancies and making childbirth safe for mother and child, the overall effect will make life better for the entire population – and we will, indeed, have helped ensure a life of dignity for all.”
The socio-political and religious dynamics of the Sahel region make it almost impossible for the family planning message to make a difference. Apparently Ngom had succeeded in making headway in the Sahel region where many before him had found the mission tough.
As regional director of the UN population agency Ngom who is based in Dakar, Senegal is tasked with overseeing 23 countries representing diverse linguistic, political and social complexities. He coordinates an amalgam of 23 diverse nations, 15 of which are Francophone, five being Anglophone, three speak Lusophone and one other is Hispanophone.
The 23 countries under Ngom are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo – Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo, The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome & Principe and Equatorial Guinea.
For decades the UN agency had struggled with the region’s fast rising population with little success. The region’s population, estimated at 414 million people in 2016, is projected to reach one billion by 2050. It has the highest dependency ratio globally, at 87.2 per cent for the age groups up-to 65 and has the highest fertility rate at five children per woman with an annual population growth of three per cent globally.
The population is predominantly young, with almost 60 per cent of population under the age of 24. Despite the fact that a number of countries in the region have reached the status of middle income country, and experience high growth in terms of gross domestic product, this has not translated to prosperity due to inequalities and slow demographic transition.
“The demographic dividend is so important in West and Central Africa because nearly two-thirds of our population is under 24 years old.” Ngom says. “But it can only be harnessed by making strategic investments and policy interventions to allow parents to plan families better and to improve education, skills development, health systems, economic reforms, job creation, good governance and accountability.”
Ngom who holds a masters degree in development and economic planning and is a former economic advisor to the minister for economy and finance in Senegal has been a key advocate of the demographic dividend concept from as early as 2006. At the time he served in the Geneva-based, Switzerland, Global Fund to Fight Against HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis as portfolio manager for Africa and team leader for the West and Central Africa. Before moving to Geneva, Ngom had worked in Nairobi, Kenya as program advisor to the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The demographic dividend is so important in West and Central Africa because nearly two-thirds of our population is under 24 years old.” Ngom says. “But it can only be harnessed by making strategic investments and policy interventions.
Other than the demographic challenge, the region faces a combination of crisis situations, ranging from political instability, insurgency and a slew of major disease outbreaks. The insurgency of Boko Haram in recent years has exacerbated terrorism that threatens peace, security and stability affecting approximately 17 million people in the Lake Chad Basin area of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and beyond. The surge of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots in the Islamic Maghreb also poses significant threats of attacks as was recently experienced in Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.
Political instability in the Central African Republic continues to impact neighbouring countries. These situations have increased violence, caused human rights violations, undermined security, provoked mass migration and destroyed public infrastructure, particularly schools and health facilities, triggering severe humanitarian challenges such as food insecurity, protection and health crises. The region remains vulnerable to disease outbreaks such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, ebola, Zika virus and Buruli ulcer which further weaken the fragile health system. It is in this mish-mash of complex and yet fluid scenarios that Ngom had to steer UNFPA programs.
In January 2013 it was decided to elevate the region by setting up a Regional Office which would provide an essential link between UNFPA’s New York headquarters and the 23 country offices in West and Central Africa. Ngom who had joined the UN agency in 2008 as director of programs division was appointed to lead the regional office in January 2015. This was soon after he had led the fund’s development of its 2014-2017 strategic plan which introduced new and bold reforms steered at increasing efficient, effective and timely service delivery.
When he arrived in Dakar, his hometown, he decided to change tact in fulfilling the fund’s mandate of putting young people and women first. Ngom opted to reengineer the regional office approaches by engaging directly with core influencers drawn from all sectors including faith-based organisations, traditional and religious leaders.
“Religious leaders are key players to boosting the long-awaited change in the behaviour of individuals and communities for an effective and sustainable improvement in the use of reproductive health services.” Ngom said this soon after his appointment.
Two years after he said these, the inter-faith dialogue was formally established. Today it remains as UNFPA-WCAROs centerpiece of intervention in leveraging on the youthful demographic dividend in the region.
In yet another humbling experience Bou Mouhamed Kounta, deputy head of Senegal’s Islamic Supreme Council, had warned the UN agency and Ngom in one of their meetings that discussing and propagating family planning in Senegal was taboo. After listening to Ngom persuasively speaking on the vast opportunities pegged on utilizing the region’s demographic dividend and engaging openly on the Quran, Kounta turned to Ngom and said. “We are ready to work with you, because I can see that UNFPA respects religion.”
In less than three years on the job, Ngom’s inventive approach has unlocked one of the biggest gridlocks preventing breakthrough in the promotion of women’s rights, youth in development and healthy planned families or as they say in the Sahel “spaced families.”