A United Nations report calling on developed countries to invest massively in family planning is raising questions about Canada's international aid priorities as its landmark Muskoka Initiative on maternal and child health enters its third year.
An estimated 222 million women lack access to modern contraceptives, an "inexcusable" number from a human-rights perspective, according to the United Nations Population Fund report. Titled By Choice, Not by Chance, the report calls on donors to invest $4.1-billion in new funding to provide universal access to family-planning services – a figure that would more than double current spending levels.
That investment could save $5.7-billion in health costs by significantly reducing the number of unsafe abortions and unintended pregnancies, the report says, calling it the most cost-effective route to improving maternal health.
But despite a $1.1-billion commitment to maternal and child health over five years, Canada's aid agency does not place a significant emphasis on family planning.
About 9 per cent of the portion of the Muskoka Initiative funding that is currently active is aimed at family planning, according to recent figures from the Canadian International Development Agency. The remainder of the funding is directed toward improving health care, disease prevention and access to better nutrition and clean water, International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino told the House of Commons recently.
Sandeep Prasad, executive director of an advocacy group called Action Canada for Population and Development, said the initiative's investments are admirable, but Canada's reluctance to support family planning services is making its aid efforts less effective. "They've fallen short in giving the financial commitment needed," he said.
And when donor countries gathered for an international family planning summit in the United Kingdom last summer, Canada was not among the countries that contributed new funding, Mr. Prasad said.
NDP MP Niki Ashton called the 9 per cent commitment to family planning inadequate. "We're talking about maternal health and reproductive rights, and family planning ought to be central to it," she said. "When women have the ability to make choices about how many children they can handle and support in their own health and socio-economic condition, that's better for everyone."
A spokesman for International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino said there is no specific policy to determine how much money should be allocated to family planning.
"CIDA does not earmark money for each specific activity, instead we support the provision of family planning information and services as part of an integrated approach," Daniel Bezalel Richardsen wrote in an e-mailed response. "We fund those projects that provide tangible outcomes for those most in need."
Kevin McCort, president of CARE Canada, which receives funding from CIDA to run maternal health programming in Tanzania, said Canada's aid commitments should be judged as one aspect of a co-ordinated global approach. "One thing people often don't realize when focusing on what Canada's doing is that it's designed to fit into the efforts of others as well," he said.
But some aid experts noted that Canada's aid decisions appear to have become more politically motivated in recent years, suggesting domestic politics could be a factor in the government's approach to maternal health.
Liam Swiss, who teaches courses on aid and gender studies at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said Canada was "called out on the carpet" at the 2010 G8 meeting in Muskoka for its reluctance to fund initiatives focused on women's sexual and reproductive rights. Canada still does not fund abortion services in developing countries and Mr. Fantino, the international co-operation minister, was among 10 cabinet members who recently voted in favour of a failed motion to have Parliament study the legal rights of the fetus.
"I think part of the way politics is being played with aid is that the Conservative government is appealing a bit to their more socially conservative base by saying they're not going to fund anything related to abortion in particular," Dr. Swiss said. "I don't know how much more widely that's expanded in terms of them being more reluctant to look at the family planning side of things."