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A file photo taken on February 15, 2012 shows a staff members caring for a baby at the Saint Ivan Rilski home for medical and social care for children in Sofia.NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/Getty Images

Poor access to family planning is one of the biggest barriers to reducing the number of maternal deaths in low-income countries, a top UN official says.

Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the United Nations Population Fund, told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Friday that it is "critical" to make contraceptives and other services more accessible so women have greater freedom to choose whether to become pregnant. Dr. Osotimehin's comments came one day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper called on world leaders at the UN General Assembly to keep maternal and child health as a "clear and top" development priority.

Mr. Harper has already placed the issue at the centre of Canada's international development agenda, and the focus on mothers and children has garnered praise from several top development officials. But some experts have argued that limited Canadian funding for family planning – along with a decision in 2010 to sideline abortion services – has undermined the initiative's success.

Asked on Friday what more could be done to reduce the number of maternal deaths, Dr. Osotimehin said the international community should focus its resources in two core areas: strengthening health care services and improving women's access to family planning resources.

He said countries should "quickly ramp up" human resources for health in developing countries by providing training for midwives and other health professionals, as well as better access to health-care services.

"The other part, which I think is critical and which we can quickly do something about, is the provision of family planning commodities to the system," Dr. Osotimehin said. "Because we know there are women who require services and they're not getting it, because we are just short of cash."

Dr. Osotimehin did not comment how much Canada spends on family planning services in developing countries, but lauded Ottawa's broader commitment to maternal and child health, including renewed efforts this year to reduce the number of newborn deaths and boost developing countries' health services.

Mr. Harper has said in the past that, while his government would not be funding abortion services in developing countries, he views reproductive health as an "essential" part of a maternal and child health continuum. Still, there are concerns among some non-governmental organizations that the federal government hasn't done enough to boost resources for family planning.

"This has been an area of under-spending by the government of Canada for a number of years at this point," said Sandeep Prasad, who heads a group called Action Canada for Population and Development. "Despite investing in maternal and child health, Canada is not significantly contributing to meeting the unmet needs for contraception."

The UN set specific targets for reducing the number of preventable maternal and child deaths, but it is unlikely the specific goals the organization set will be achieved before the Millennium Development Goals expire next year. Mr. Harper called on world leaders on Thursday to keep maternal and child health at the top of the world's post-2015 development agenda.

Dr. Osotimehin said he is not part of the UN conversations about the next round of development goals. "All I want to see is that, whatever conversations they have and whatever conclusions they come to, people, particularly women adults and girls must be central in that. Once they do that, if it's one goal or 10, it doesn't bother me."