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Working Paper

Publication Date



Unmet need for family planning has been a core concept in international population discourse for several decades. In this paper we reevaluate its utility. We review the history of unmet need and the development of increasingly refined methods of its empirical measurement. We then turn to the main questions that have been raised about unmet need during the past decade, some of which concern the validity of the concept and others its role in the post-ICPD environment. The discussion draws heavily on empirical research conducted during the 1990s, much of it localized, in-depth studies combining quantitative and qualitative methodologies, that has significantly advanced our understanding of the nature and causes of unmet need. Of the causes of unmet need other than those related to access to services, three emerge from the in-depth studies as especially salient: lack of necessary knowledge about contraceptive methods, social opposition to their use, and health concerns about possible side effects. We argue that the concept of unmet need for family planning, by joining together contraceptive behavior and fertility preferences, encourages an integration of family planning and broader development approaches to population policy. In its emphasis on individual aspirations and their fulfillment, unmet need remains a readily defended rationale for the formulation of population policy and a sensible guide to the design of family planning programs.