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A pregnant Angolan mother is seen with one of her five children on the southern edge of Luanda in August, 2009. (LOUISE REDVERS/AFP/Getty Images)
A pregnant Angolan mother is seen with one of her five children on the southern edge of Luanda in August, 2009. (LOUISE REDVERS/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe editorial

Maternal health plan is something of a start Add to ...

The G8 maternal health announcement is not all that aid groups hoped for, or all that women and children in developing countries need. It will, however, make a real impact, and gets the issue on the international political agenda.

The total contribution - $7.3-billion over five years - is big enough to save many lives. Hundreds of thousands of women die each year before, during or soon after childbirth; children die from malnutrition. Many solutions are available and relatively cheap. Women need access to prenatal care, to clean health care facilities that are in a position to fight childbirth-related infections, and to family planning services. The money will help deliver these essential resources.

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The announcement explicitly includes an accountability framework. That creates an opportunity for taxpayers, aid groups and people who benefit from the money to ensure that it is being well spent.

The success, as meaningful as it is, comes with two asterisks.

First, Canada was unable to wring significant commitments out of its partners. Canada's share is 15 per cent of the total pledged in Muskoka. But the initiative includes not only G8 members, but other states such as the Netherlands, Norway and New Zealand, as well as the Gates Foundation. The largest countries' contributions will therefore be extremely modest. It is commendable when Canada leads, but on this issue, the rest of the pack is too far behind.

The Canadian contribution also comes at the apparent expense of other international aid commitments. As part of the austerity program in the 2010 budget, Canada flatlined its aid spending, at $5-billion a year for the next five years. The maternal health initiative has $1.1-billion in new funding over five years. That means other areas the government identified as priorities, amounting to at least 4.4 per cent of Canada's foreign aid budget, will likely have to be cut.

Maternal health runs the risk of being the latest flavour-of-the-month of international summitry. There are, however, strong indications - given the hard lobbying it took to rocket the issue to such prominence; Stephen Harper's focus on accountability and his choice in making it the G8 theme; and the dissatisfaction of most aid groups with the result - that it will stay on the political radar.

Ultimately, what's needed is a larger ongoing commitment of the leaders of the world's wealthiest countries - but some commitment is now on display, and it is more evident than it was yesterday.

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