UNITED NATIONS (AP) — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed Nigeria’s former Health Minister Babatunde Osotimehin to head the United Nations Population Fund which supports programs in more than 150 countries that promote sexual and reproductive health and family planning.

Osotimehin, a 61-year-old medical doctor and AIDS expert, will be the first African to head the agency, known as UNFPA.

The 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo changed UNFPA's focus from numerical targets to promoting choices for individual women and men and supporting economic development and education for girls. Underlying the shift was research showing that educated women have smaller families.

As the world's population edges toward 7 billion, up from 2.5 billion in 1950, UNFPA is the main international agency working to improve reproductive and sexual health services and secure family planning supplies. It supports countries in using population data to develop policies and programs to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted and every birth is safe.

The Bush administration had cut off money to UNFPA because of claims, denied by the agency, that it supported forced abortions and sterilizations in China. The Obama administration reversed the policy and renewed funding for the agency.

Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and a former U.S. senator, said Osotimehin's appointment “comes at a critical time for women and girls across the globe.”

“More than 215 million women around the globe want to determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but lack access to reproductive health and family planning options,” Wirth said. “Poor women and adolescent girls in developing countries tend to be disproportionally denied access to these services.”

Osotimehin will succeed Thoraya Ahmed Obaid of Saudi Arabia, an expert on women's issues who cracked a glass ceiling for women in the Arab world's most conservative nation. She has been the fund's executive director since 2001.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq announced the appointment to a four-year term following Ban's consultations with UNFPA's executive board.

A professor of clinical pathology, Osotimehin studied medicine at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and at the University of Birmingham in Britain. He served as Nigeria's health minister from December 2008 to March 2010, headed the National Agency of Nigeria for the Control of HIV/AIDS, and is currently provost of the University of Ibadan's College of Medicine.