This is a joint post with Kate McQueston.

Population and development in Western Africa are closely linked. At the heart of these issues lies the slow demographic transition of the region’s countries, which still experience some of the highest fertility rates in the world.

Last month the Center for Global Development hosted a meeting on the Role of Population and Development Research in Western Africa at our offices in Washington DC.   Over the daylong workshop, 17 participants with a diverse range of expertise and perspectives discussed the many pressing population and development issues in that part of the world. Participants came from organizations including USAID, the World Bank, IPAS, UC Berkeley, UNPFA, PRB, the Hewlett Foundation, and Cornell University. In their discussions, the group agreed that there remains a lack of clear policy recommendations or consensus on how to best address the population and development nexus, despite a renewed focus on the role of family planning, reproductive health, and demography as essential drivers of economic development.   In addition, a few common themes emerged and participants identified several research questions that will require closer attention over the coming years.

First, a major, multi-sectoral effort is needed to address the intermediate and direct determinants of high fertility. This could be framed as a priority effort for the Sahel region specifically, or be expanded more broadly. This effort would be greatly enhanced by building stronger networks in-country of people working on issues of population and reproductive health. In this respect, Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue from Cornell University (he attended the meeting at CGD), explained his work with IUSSP, which is aimed at strengthening demographic training in Francophone Africa.

Donor coordination is another area for improvement, particularly the coordination among key players such as USAID, DfID, the French Development Agency, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank. A lot has been done already, as exemplified by the coordination that resulted in this summer’s successful London Family Planning Summit. Still, how can coordination efforts help make governments and agencies become more effective on the ground?

Reaching the highest level of leadership with policy recommendations on population and reproductive health is another major challenge. Population issues should be discussed and acknowledged by policymakers in Western African countries as well as their partner countries. This is urgently needed to address demographic challenges at the global and national level through country-level policies, partnerships, and funding opportunities. More needs to be done to make the results of population and demographic research both available and usable at the policy level.

Finally, women’s rights and family planning should be a key focus. The need here is to de-medicalize family planning and move away from family planning centers, ensuring that family planning is readily integrated at the community level. Since family planning should be delivered through a medical framework, it’s important to engage medical actors on these issues. A similar recommendation to focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights was a key aspect of CGD’s Focus UNFPA report, resulting from the CGD Working Group on UNFPA’s Leadership Transition.

Knowledge gaps in the region were also identified. While this may be a laundry list of sorts, key items included research on the political economy of change, the role of social media and technology, the role of the demographic dividend on economic policies and governance (including the rise of inequality in terms of fertility trends and contraceptive use), effectiveness of performance-based funding type mechanisms, service delivery options, possible roles for behavioral economics, linkages between environmental impacts and population growth, urbanization, and more.

A new area of concern (and potential opportunity) is how family planning and reproductive health will fare after the current set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire, and how that might affect policies and programs in Western Africa. While still two years away, much work has already been done to propose and refine possible new objectives. UNFPA has been holding thematic consultations on how population dynamics might feature into the post 2015 development agenda. There are several ways to participate at, including the opportunity to comment on background papers and submit content.

Follow up from the London Family Planning Summit also represents an opportunity to refocus current patterns of spending. New funds are being made available by DfID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and UNFPA to increase access to family planning for 120 million women by 2020—Family Planning 2020. While funding streams and existing partnerships with donors are often less focused on Western and Central Africa, the new monies could have a significant impact in one of the regions of the world where total fertility rates of five or higher are not uncommon.

In the coming weeks, keep an eye out on our Website for more on population and development in Western Africa. In addition, the Seventh Annual PopPov Conference on Population, Reproductive Health, and Economic Development is taking place this month in Oslo, Norway—updates from the meeting can be found here.