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A woman shows her malnourished baby at an intensive nutritional rehabilitation centre (CRENI) in Tanout, southern Niger, on April 27, 2010. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman shows her malnourished baby at an intensive nutritional rehabilitation centre (CRENI) in Tanout, southern Niger, on April 27, 2010. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

Abortion debate stalling maternal-health initiative, group says Add to ...

Canada's controversy over funding abortion appears to be slowing work on an initiative to improve maternal and child health in poor countries, the aid network ONE says.

"I know it feels like a stumbling block right now," said David Lane, chief executive officer of ONE, the development organization founded by Irish rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof. Meetings of officials from G8 countries to prepare for next month's leaders' summit haven't clearly moved plans for the initiative, Mr. Lane said.

"It sounds like, in the G8 sherpas' meetings, the meetings that set the stage for the summit, the process that goes on in the months that lead up to it, there has been an interruption in the momentum about where to go."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in January that he would make an initiative on maternal and child health the centrepiece of the G8 summit, which he will host in Muskoka, Ont., in June. But the government's refusal to include financing for abortion to prevent deaths from unsafe abortion and pregnancy complications has dominated debate around the issue in Canada.

Canada and other G8 nations have yet to indicate the scope and scale of the plan, though the summit is only a month away.

Mr. Lane, accompanied by supporters including former MP Belinda Stronach, who in 2005 crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals, argued that abortion is crucial to improving maternal health. But they raised concerns that the controversy over abortion funding could derail the G8 initiative.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae scoffed at the idea that an initiative backed by G8 countries will be derailed by the domestic debate in Canada. But opposition leaders note the government has yet to indicate what it intends to fund, and what it will cost. "It's all sizzle, and where's the steak?" said New Democrat Paul Dewar.

Mr. Lane noted it is "hard to square" Canada's enthusiasm for a new G8 aid initiative on maternal and child health with the government's plan to freeze the foreign aid budget for four years starting next year.

But a report card issued by ONE yesterday gives Canada kudos for meeting its 2005 G8 promise to double aid to Africa between 2004 and 2009, noting that France, Germany and Italy will all fail to keep up their end of the pledge and Italy's aid to Africa has declined.

The report tracks the commitments that G8 leaders made at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, include an increase in annual aid to Africa. Those commitments come due this year, but ONE is urging G8 leaders to make collective five-year commitments to Africa again.

The three countries that made the most modest promises - Canada, the United States and Japan - met them, while the UK will fall just short of meeting its more ambitious pledge.

Although the G8 countries failed to meet the 2005 promise to increase annual aid to Africa by $25 billion, ONE argues that the commitment yielded real results: an estimated increase of $13-billion in aid.

"It's a 61 per cent increase," Mr. Lane said. "We're very happy to say that the evidence powerfully supports the argument that these commitments have made a dramatic difference."

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