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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the $3.5-billion funding, which goes beyond what non-governmental organizations had requested, during a summit on maternal and child health in Toronto on ThursdayFred Lum

Ottawa will commit another $3.5-billion in funding aimed at improving the health of moms and kids in low-income countries, a major boost for a program the Prime Minister has identified as a signature priority.

Stephen Harper announced the funding, which goes beyond what non-governmental organizations had requested, during a summit on maternal and child health in Toronto on Thursday. The money will go toward improving nutrition, strengthening health care services and reducing the spread of diseases, according to the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Harper has said the issue is Canada's top international development priority and a "moral imperative" in which Canada believes it can make a significant difference.

"There is a moral imperative to saving the lives of vulnerable women and children in some of the poorest countries around the world when it is in our power to do so," Mr. Harper said in a press release issued on Thursday. "It is unacceptable that these vulnerable global citizens die from preventable causes which can be addressed with proven, affordable and cost effective solutions – some costing mere pennies."

The new funding would be made available between 2015 and 2020 with the goal of ending all preventable deaths of mothers and children under five. The next stage of funding will place an increased focus on interventions during the first month of a newborn's life, on boosting efforts on immunization and improving civil registration and the collection of vital statistics, according to a press release from the Prime Minister's Office.

Canada's maternal and child health initiative was announced in 2010 as a core focus for the G8 summit in Muskoka, Ont. At that time, Canada said it would provide an additional $1.1-billion in funding for global efforts to reduce deaths of mothers and children and $1.75-billion in money that was already committed to the cause, and rallied other G8 countries to contribute as well.

That funding commitment is set to expire in 2015, and non-governmental organizations had pressed Ottawa for an additional commitment of $3.25-billion. At $3.5-billion, the funding package announced on Thursday goes beyond what NGOs had requested.

Canada has so far focused its maternal and child health funding on a select group of 10 low-income countries, seven of which are located in Africa. The Prime Minister's Office said it would maintain a geographic focus in an effort to tailor projects to support the specific needs a country has identified.

It was not immediately clear if the priority countries for maternal and child health would remain the same or if Canada would seek other countries to work with.

The focus areas announced on Thursday do not make any mention of reproductive rights, something philanthropist Melinda Gates has flagged as an integral part of maternal, newborn and child health.

Media were not permitted to attend a number of panels during the maternal and child health summit, despite talk from the government about the importance of transparency in its signature development initiative.

Several of the speeches were open to the media but reporters were not permitted to report on the remarks by the World Health Organization's director-general, Margaret Chan, who spoke to the summit on Thursday morning.

Officials with the Prime Minister's Office said the panels were closed to allow participants to have a more frank and open conversation. However, they did not explain why reporters were barred from Ms. Chan's speech.

The new funding will continue to focus on improving nutrition in low-income countries, which the government said has emerged as a "far more important factor in maternal and child mortality than had been originally appreciated. The United Nations Children's Fund says under-nutrition is an underlying cause in close to half of all deaths of children younger than five.

Ottawa will also look to improve health systems in developing countries, including training workers and expanding access to facilities and services. The PMO indicated that Canada would work with the World Bank, UNICEF and others to work on supporting civil registration and vital statistics systems in developing countries to ensure that all births are counted.

The government said it would also put significant effort into funding vaccination efforts in developing countries. Seth Berkley, the head of the GAVI Alliance, told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview that much of the progress on maternal and child health is related to increased use of vaccinations.

"The big picture, of course, is that immunization is the single most successful intervention. It touches more lives than any other intervention and, you know, at some point in history has touched virtually every person on earth," Mr. Berkley said.

A new call for proposals for NGOs to receive funding for projects will be set for the fall of 2014, the government said.

Canada has frozen its overall aid budget to 2015, and it was not clear from Mr. Harper's announcement if the government would increase the overall budget after that year. Canada's overall aid budget is approximately $5-billion per year and includes base funding for humanitarian crises and multilateral organizations.

The government said it would continue to work with the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, an umbrella organization for 70 non-governmental organizations, as well as the private sector and civil society.

The government also said Canada would work to keep maternal and child health on the global development agenda when the millennium development goals expire in 2015.

Where Canada focuses its maternal and child health aid:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Ethiopia
  • Haiti
  • Malawi
  • Mali
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • Sudan
  • Tanzania