Harper urges aid for maternal health, announces $3.5-billion in funding

May 30, 2014

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is calling on other countries to follow Canada's lead in boosting funding for maternal and child health but would not say whether Ottawa plans to increase its overall aid budget to meet global targets.

During a closing session of a three-day summit on maternal and child health in Toronto, Mr. Harper said he would work to keep the issue on the agenda and press other countries to renew their spending commitments. Mr. Harper announced $3.5-billion in funding over five years to improve the health of mothers and children on Thursday and has made the issue Canada's top foreign-aid priority.

The heads of the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the United Nations praised Canada's efforts to help mothers and children during the summit and said they hoped other countries would make similar pledges. "Once again, you are leading by example," WHO director-general Margaret Chan told Mr. Harper during a panel discussion on Friday, adding that more countries should join global efforts to reduce the number of women and children who die of preventable causes each year.

However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later noted that many wealthy countries are not fulfilling a core global target of putting at least 0.7 per cent of their gross national income into foreign aid. "Unfortunately, at this time, there are only five countries who are meeting this target," he said during a news conference on Friday.

Canada spent about 0.27 per cent of GNI on aid last year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and has not said whether it will increase development spending after 2015, when a multiyear budget freeze is set to expire. Mr. Ban said he is grateful to Canada for its contributions, including on Syria and other humanitarian interventions. "But this overall, agreed target should be met," he said. "I hope that all the countries [will] accelerate their efforts."

Mr. Harper said foreign aid should not be measured by how much money has been spent. "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 said.

Liam Swiss, who teaches development studies at Memorial University, said that if Canada's aid budget shrinks or remains the same after 2015, the government may have to shift development assistance away from other priorities and toward its maternal and child health commitment. "Sticking to a commitment like this probably just means less room in the budget for other things" if the budget isn't increased, Prof. Swiss said.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Mr. Harper declined to say whether the government would boost overall spending on foreign aid, noting only that, "We'll do one announcement at a time."

Mr. Harper, who has personally championed the cause of improving the health of mothers and children in developing countries, told The Globe he believes Canadians are eager to contribute to development efforts in low-income countries. And he noted that some interventions, such as providing vitamin A capsules for a child at a cost of four cents per year, can have a significant impact at a very low cost.

"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," Mr. Harper said in the interview. "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."

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