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G8 health pledges fall short of what's needed

Canada mustered $5-billion in G8 pledges to tackle maternal and child health in poor countries, but uneven contributions from deficit-laden members cast questions over the rich club's future ability to act decisively on aid.

The initiative, bolstered by another $2.3-billion in contributions from six non-G8 countries and the Gates Foundation, allowed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to claim a victory in efforts to reduce mortality in the developing world - far short of the needs, but enough to argue he advanced the cause.

But Canada, the smallest G8 country by population, ponied up a fifth of the pledge - $1.1-billion in new funds over five years - while others, struck by economic woes and high deficits, offered up more modest sums - in some cases making firm commitments for only a few years.

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"Some countries pledged relatively more than others, at least relative to the size of their economies," Mr. Harper said as he unveiled the scope of the so-called Muskoka Initiative. "Obviously the differences in pledges have to do with differences in priorities, but also differences in financial situations."

Behind the scenes, that showed: Britain offered a big annual contribution, about $300-million a year, but was only willing to make a firm commitment to the G8 for two years, not five, according to sources. The United States said it would commit $1.3-billion (U.S.) over two years - but didn't commit to five years of funding either.

Others, compared with the size of their economies, offered less. Canadian officials refused to provide details of each country's contribution, but sources provided a rough breakdown: Germany contributed more than half a billion U.S. dollars, Japan about $500-million, France about $400-million, and Italy, less.

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Aid groups, however, insisted it would not meet the needs, and while some applauded Canada's contribution, they said Mr. Harper had failed to wring comparable amounts out of other countries.

"It falls quite short of the global amount really needed to make a dent in this problem," said Mark Entwistle, G8 spokesman for the international aid group One.

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"Mr. Harper deserves kudos for putting it on the agenda. The G8 as a whole didn't really step up."

Mr. Harper, however, declared a victory, saying the pledges showed the G8 still has the power to take action on humanitarian causes. Canadians, he said, will support the cost of efforts that will have an real impact on saving lives.

"As long as people can see their money being used on things that are important, that really change the lives of people, money that is used effectively, people will support that."

Canada's $1.1-billion in extra money over five years comes on top of the $1.75-billion in existing funding it already spent to fund maternal and child health programs. It will take up the lion's share of Canada's new aid in future years, as overall annual aid spending is frozen at $5-billion next year.

Canadian officials did not detail where the new money will be spent, but the government said it would be aimed at improving care for pregnancy and child delivery, on nutrition for mothers and young children, and addressing the leading killers of young children - presumably through items such as vaccines.

Canada's child and maternal-health funding will be targeted to sub-Saharan Africa. The money will be focused on a "limited number of high-risk countries such as Haiti, Afghanistan, Mali, Tanzania and Mozambique," Mr. Harper's office said in a statement.

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The G8, however, already suffers from a lack of credibility because of its failure to meet its aid pledges of the past. Only half of the pledge that G8 leaders made in 2005, to double aid to Africa, by this year was ever delivered.

"I think it is frustrating that world leaders sign up to things and then don't deliver them and we have to make sure that happens," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters.

Mr. Harper insisted this time that G8 leaders knew there must be a new era of accountability, and were cautious about making pledges. Even so, the less-ambitious pledges of some nations raised other questions about whether the cash-strapped "rich" nations can still act cohesively on aid.

Traditionally generous aid donors such as Germany and France were reticent, facing high deficits; the United States worried about big pledges in a tough economy.

Non-G8 countries were brought in to bolster the pledge: Norway, Holland, and New Zealand joined talks, but late pledges came from South Korea, Spain and Switzerland. The Gates foundation had previously announced $1.5-billion in funds.

It was still, according to Dave Toycen, president of development charity World Vision Canada, a mustering of funds that didn't meet the ambition. "Overall, the Muskoka Initiative looks more like a small down payment than an adequate investment, and won't reach as far as it must to stop needless early deaths."

With files from Bill Curry, Jeremy Torobin and Paul Waldie

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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