Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made maternal and child health a core focus for Canada’s foreign aid, sat down with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Globe and Mail’s Kim Mackrael at a school in Toronto on Thursday. The interview took place after Mr. Harper announced $3.5-billion in funding for maternal and child health over the next five years.
Mr. Harper, you spoke yesterday about the importance of keeping the focus on maternal, newborn and child health. What can you tell me about the post-2015 development agenda and what Canada, specifically, is pushing for?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper: Well, as I mentioned today, we will essentially be going farther and with a little bit more resources in the same direction. Our focus will continue to be reducing mortality for mothers and children, and we will be focusing on disease prevention, you know, immunization, vaccination. Also nutrition, as I mentioned, because that’s something that Canada’s been particularly specialized in getting some of these vital nutrients that are essential for early development. And then we’ll be focusing a little more on vital statistics and registry.
You know, in some of the countries like Tanzania and others where you’re getting significant progress, you’re going to kind of start to hit a wall if you don’t have better baseline data. So those really will be our focus. And I’m not saying there aren’t other things we’ll be doing. You know, obviously we contribute to the Global Fund on malaria, [tuberculosis] and AIDS.
But what I really want to try and urge the world to do is not to multiply the objectives. We have eight MDGs now, and I’m not saying they’re necessarily the best eight or that we can only have eight. But I just know from all my experience in government that the more priorities you have the less any of your priorities actually matter.
So we’re focusing on two in Canada. But I’d urge the world not to let this list get too long or everything will just become ineffective.
Ms. Gates, your foundation has the reputation and the resources to go to different governments and try to persuade them to put their own resources into what you’re working on in development. What has your experience been like in pursuing maternal, newborn and child health, and what has it been like [to work] with Canada?
Melinda Gates: Well, first of all I would say this: maternal and child health is on the global health agenda, in part, really, thanks to what Canada did with the Muskoka Initiative, that people started to really focus and say ‘maternal and child health is on the agenda, what should we do?’ And we got very practical about it as a world, saying, ‘What are the specific targets and indicators we should go for, how do we do that?’ And now, the amazing thing is because we have made progress on these under-five deaths, that is child mortalities down, from  million deaths now down to 6.6 million in the last year.
Now the new piece that we’re adding in, which honestly should have been there before, is the newborn agenda. The World Health Assembly just voted two weeks ago on an every newborn action plan, which is saying, okay, of those 6.6 million deaths, we can now look and see 2.9 million are in the first month of life, a million on the first day, and there is basically a package of very simple, inexpensive interventions that we really should go for as the world, if we want to bring down that neonatal death [rate]. And we can do that.
And so I’m seeing more and more governments come on board to do that, again, thanks to Canada’s leadership on this, and we’ve been really pleased. And I think the neat thing is that you’re also seeing the African governments step up and put some of their own money into the equation as well. But they’re also building out their health systems. Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Senegal. It’s those countries building out their health systems that will allow us to continue to add more pieces in that will save mothers and children’s lives. But it’s that health platform that we can build upon.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper: I think people need to understand, this really has become a proliferating and effective network. Obviously we began this at the G8 with Canada and with some major western governments, but then we got major private organizations, the Gates Foundation was really the very first and the largest. And as Melinda mentioned you now have developing countries that are specifically now starting to funnel some dollars towards their own health systems.