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gerald caplan

A mother and child await treatment at the Empilisweni Clinic in Worcester, South Africa, on Feb. 4, 2008.SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM/The Associated Press

It was always too good to be true.

Those hard-working Canadian NGOs who gave Stephen Harper the benefit of the doubt publicly were always wary privately. Mr. Harper suddenly making maternal and child health in poor countries a priority? Where did that come from?

The grounds for skepticism were clear enough. No one in government, including the Prime Minister, had raised the issue before, even though many groups around the world have long begged the West to prioritize it. The government had done nothing toward improving our own home-grown crisis of maternal and child deaths. The minister responsible for foreign aid, Bev Oda, had publicly attacked and humiliated her own experts at CIDA. Foreign aid was being re-directed from Africa to better-off Latin American countries.

The Harperites seemed hostile to exactly those NGOs with the most experience in maternal and child health issues. They defunded Kairos, allowing their visceral hostility to all things Palestinian to trump the group's support for violated women in eastern Congo. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, which has received CIDA funding for almost three decades, ominously hasn't had its money renewed.

Finally, the many authorities in this area all agree that to ensure the overall well-being of women and children, which ultimately will determine both their quality of life and their mortality, larger issues of development and women's rights must be pursued diligently. Sexual violence, child marriage, land and inheritance rights, birth control, abortion, political rights - all these issues related to women's subordination must be faced if their overall health is to be improved. Could Mr. Harper actually deliver such a program?

So there was much reason for skepticism to begin with. Since then, I fear, it's been downhill all the way.

First, this so-called priority is often not even alluded to when Mr. Harper and his people speak about the upcoming G8 meeting. Other than for straight political purposes - to woo voters beyond the Conservatives' narrow base - maternal and child care seems barely on the government's radar.

The government's real commitment to humanitarian work abroad was reflected in its recent budget. There are no further increases planned to foreign aid after this year. None. Where will any money for maternal and child health come from? There are already indications that much of our aid to Haiti will not be new money but will come from other parts of the CIDA budget. Our aid, now 0.33 per cent of gross national income - a shabby 18th out of 22 donor countries - will plummet to 0.28 per cent by 2014. The goal of 0.7 per cent will be reached presumably at the End of Days.

At the same time, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has announced that Canada will freeze aid to Africa until the government assesses how previous aid was spent. Many will be surprised to know that sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region on Earth with the most dire record on maternal and child health, received only one-fifth of Canada's development assistance in 2008. Where in the world does the rest go? Who deserves it more? Well, eight poor African countries had their aid from Canada peremptorily ended, diverted to middle-income Latin American countries to serve our own commercial trade interests. So our generous "aid" will actually be used on behalf of Canadian businesses instead of combatting African poverty.

As to the government's punishing of Kairos for standing up for Palestinian rights, the tragic collateral damage is already being felt. As the Harperites knew, Kairos was to fund a human-rights NGO in eastern Congo for a program training women, themselves victims of sexual assault, to instruct other violated women about their legal rights. Thanks to The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent, Geoffrey York, we've learned this program has now been cancelled. The intended instructors have been demoralized and the head of the Congolese NGO told Mr. York he felt as if were "drowning" when he heard the project was to receive no funds. This outcome was widely predicted when the Kairos funding was abruptly halted. No one in the Harper government cared.

Meanwhile, the home front continues to be characterized by good programs perennially under-funded. A recent evaluation of the Canadian Prenatal Nutrition Program, for example, found that it had helped thousands of pregnant women take better care of themselves and therefore give birth to healthier babies. As always, better health also lower health-care costs. But following in the deplorable tradition of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, the report pointed out that funding for the program, already modest, has actually dropped over the past decade

This disheartening record has received scant public attention. But the final blow against those who prayed that the maternal-child health statement might be real has now been delivered, and luckily it has gotten wide coverage. Unluckily, it has been deeply depressing.

Apparently there are no simple motherhood issues in the Conservative Party, not when it comes to family planning and its various components including birth control and abortion. Even though all authorities agree that these programs and procedures are critical to maternal health, Harper government ministers treat them, as has been said, the way they might child pornography. Yet they are not put forth for ideological or political reasons. They are raised for the simple, practical reason that they've been proved conclusively to save the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of women in poor countries. The evidence is overwhelming.

But evidence counts for nothing against faith-based public policy, women's health be damned. You might say the real Conservative Party has stood up, embarrassing its leader (who tries desperately to keep these views buried though he clearly shares many of them) and enraging everyone who actually knows how to improve the well-being of mothers and children. As of the moment, no one has a clue what the vaunted Harper initiative will include - if anything at all. No one knows what other good programs might be cut if this one goes ahead. No one has a clue if the entire issue is any more than spin.

Stephen Harper is desperate to win for Canada a rotating seat on the Security Council later this year. Will his well-promoted maternal-child musings win him votes from grateful nations around the world? Or will it remind other governments just what they can expect from Mr. Harper's Canada if it wins that seat.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa

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