Canada takes lead in helping to save women and children

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan
Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan


By : Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan


Canada, which has lost ground in public opinion globally during the last few years, might be on the way to gaining respect with its new efforts to rally the world to help save the lives of mothers and children in the developing world.

About six million children and 300,000 mothers will die this year, mostly in Africa and Asia. Many of these deaths, experts believe, could be prevented by vaccination, better and safer nutrition and health care.

To save such lives has become one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s priorities and he has sought to rally other developed countries to this cause. His efforts have won him praise, but at the same time have elicited some cautionary advice.

Prime Minister Harper explained his new policy to the Globe and Mail: “We’re in a truly global world. So I do think it is in our broader, enlightened self-interest to make the world a better place. But I also do think some of these things are just worth doing in their own right. We are a very wealthy and lucky people. It’s not all luck, but you know, we all like to think we’re self-made. But most of us were fortunate to be born at this point in history and in this particular country.”

In 2010, the prime minister announced $2.85 billion for maternal and child health over five years. He did so at the G-8 conference in Muskoka, Ontario. He was following up on the agreement in 2000 on eight United Nations Millennium Development goals to improve the world situation by 2015. These included a pledge to reduce the under-five child mortality rate by two-thirds and the maternal mortality rate by 75 percent.

Substantial progress has been made since, but not enough. The child mortality rate has been reduced to 6.5 million (it was 12 million annually). But it is short of the two-thirds goal next year. Similarly, maternal deaths have been reduced by 45 percent, but this too is below the target.

So Prime Minister Harper invited world leaders and child-health specialists to a summit in Toronto in May this year and nudged them again to do more. He made a $3.5 billion commitment to maternal and child health care. This is more than the $3.25 billion that nongovernment agencies had requested Canada to provide.

The new funding, to be given between 2015 and 2020, seeks to end preventable deaths of mothers and children under five. The summit attracted leaders like United Nations Secretary General Bank Ki-moon as well as private citizens, such as Melina Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is helping improve living standards in poor countries.

“Once again, you are leading by example,” World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan told Prime Minister Harper. She also appealed to other countries to do more.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised Canada’s leadership. But he noted also that most wealthy countries had missed the target they themselves set decades ago to provide at least 0.7 percent of their gross national income to aid poorer countries. Only five countries have met this goal, he declared.

Canada spent only about 0.2 percent of its GNI on foreign aid last year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and has failed to meet its target year after year. Ban Ki-moon thanked Canada for its help for humanitarian causes, including aid for Syrian refugees, but said that the “agreed target should be met.”

Canada clearly is lagging behind. Canada earns about four percent of the rich countries’ aggregate income. But its pledge is worth only two percent of global health assistance. Some specialists fear that unless Canada increases its foreign aid, the money it has pledged will be taken away from other desperately needed areas and diverted to maternal and child health funding. Prime Minister Harper has refused to say whether Canada will increase its aid to meet its long-standing commitment.

He stated that foreign aid should not be measured by the amount of assistance offered. “It’s a philosophy of our government, and I think of Canadians, more broadly, that we do not measure things in terms of the amount of money we spend but in terms of the results we achieve,” he asserted.

Canada’s maternal and child health funding is directed mostly at seven countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania), two in Asia (Afghanistan and Bangladesh) and one in Latin America (Haiti).

Liam Swiss, who teaches development studies at Memorial University, spoke for many when he expressed the fear that if Canada’s aid budget remains the same after 2015 and is not increased, the money will be shifted toward Canada’s maternal and child health commitment and away from areas of vital need in other desperately poor countries. “Sticking to a commitment like this probably just means less room in the budget for other things if the budget is not increased,” said Professor Swiss.

That will be welcome news for the ten recipients but a major shock to the other poor countries – and not much credit in the long run for Canada’s aid record.


Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.


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