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International Development Minister Christian Paradis appears at a Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 9

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada must have help from private-sector companies to meet its key development goal of reducing infant mortality and improving the health of young mothers in poor countries, says the country's aid minister.

Tying Canada's overseas development assistance to private-sector partnerships has been a controversial proposition for the Harper government, and one that Development Minister Christian Paradis makes no apologies for.

"By involving the private sector, they can find solutions that the government cannot, and we can leverage some projects together," Paradis said in a recent interview.

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The government has drawn fire in foreign aid circles for linking its aid priorities with private companies, notably in the mining sector, where Canada has launched three pilot projects.

But Paradis brushed aside that criticism saying: "It's very simplistic thinking."

Paradis is advocating partnering with the health sector to help Canada make progress on its "flagship" development priority of improving maternal, newborn and child health.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched his Muskoka Initiative at the G8 summit hosted by Canada in 2010. While Paradis says there has been some initial success, the government isn't satisfied with the progress to date.

Harper has convened a three-day international conference for Toronto at the end of May that will showcase gains made so far since 2010, but a key goal will be galvanizing more international support for a major Third World development issue, Paradis said.

Private sector companies have a lot to offer aid agencies and governments in helping people in poor countries receive adequate health care, said Dr. Seth Berkley, head of the GAVI Alliance, one of Canada's key multilateral partners on the initiative.

GAVI receives $50 million from Canada to administer diarrhea and pneumonia vaccines to prevent the needless deaths of children in the Third World.

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GAVI is working on a pilot project in Mozambique with a cellular phone company to help improve the birth and death registration system — a key obstacle that the Canadian government and various aid partners have identified as hampering progress on helping sick kids and moms.

"That will be rigorously evaluated to see if it's working," said Berkley.

"If it is, we'll want to scale it up to being across all of Mozambique and then eventually if it works, to other countries as well, trying to bring other private sector actors into that. But the idea is to try to create systems that allow us to take advantage of company expertise."

Berkley said governments have lots to learn from private companies such as Walmart or FedEx on improving their supply chains and achieving other efficiencies.

Paradis said the private sector is "a necessary tool" for making the further gains that are needed on child and maternal health.

"We are not subsidizing the private sector, we are just converging our efforts together," he added. "It must be beyond the private sector. We need academia, networking involving foundations, civil society — but private sector certainly has to be in."

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Harper intended the Muskoka Initiative to help address some sobering health figures in poor countries: the hundreds of thousands of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth each year and the millions of children who perish before age five.

The initiative was set up to target two of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals that were found to be the most lacking: reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.

But as figures and information provided by Paradis's office show, the world is not on track to make the progress it was hoping for on those two development goals, Nos. 4 and 5, by 2015.

"There have been worldwide gains on MDGs 4 and 5 but in the poorest countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, progress has not been sufficient to achieve the ambitious targets set for the MDGs," said a statement from Paradis's office after the interview.

In the interview, Paradis cited progress in several African countries, and touted Canadian partnerships with the leaders of Senegal and Tanzania as holding potential for greater success.

Rosemary McCarney, a co-ordinator for the Canadian Network for Maternal Newborn Child Health, agrees that more needs to be done. Improving the collection of vital statistics will help target hard-to-reach patients in remote areas.

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In the meantime, she said Canada deserves some credit for the improvements in maternal and child health and for showing leadership on the world stage since 2010.

"Canada came out of the gate when MDG 4 and 5 were the worst performing MDGs, and Canada said we're going do something about that, and get our G8 partners onto it, and kept going," she said.

Paradis cited the need for improvements on the collection of vital statistics as well as helping newborns better survive the first 28 days of life, and making gains on nutrition as key areas where progress needs to be made.

"We want to be leader in this and we can do more," Paradis said. "This is important for the taxpayers to fully appreciate how Canada is well-branded all around the globe."

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