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G8 maternal and child health offering shameful: Harper's failure means women and children continue to die

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Earlier today, Dorothy Ngoma, of Malawi said “It is immoral that today in 2010, a thousand women are dying every day in childbirth.”

Tonight, pregnant women and young children can draw little comfort from the G8 leaders’ meager offering to alleviate their suffering. 

“Shameful” was the first word uttered by anti-poverty activists in the Alternative Media centre as they watched Stephen Harper announce that his vaunted signature initiative as this year’s leader of the G8 has raised only $5 billion dollars from his G8 partners.  $5 billion - when every credible agency says $30 billion is needed to fill the gap.  Of that, the G8’s fair share is $24 Billion.

“It displays indifference and irresponsibility to a tragedy that is fully preventable”, said Gerry Barr, Chair of Make Poverty History and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

Almost all of the 1000 women who die daily from causes that are wholly preventable live in the world’s poorest countries.  A staggering 24,000 children under 5 die each day.

“It’s a very sad moment.” says Dennis Howlett, Coordinator of Make Poverty History.  “It calls into question the whole reason for the G8’s existence.  Development was supposed to be their key portfolio.  If they can’t save the lives of women and children, what is the point of their existence?”

In the month’s leading up to the G8, I took part in countless conference calls with development and health organizations in Canada and around the globe, all full of hope and excitement that at last, this most neglected of all of the UN Millennium Development Goals was going to get attention and the funding needed to truly to create a thru-line of care from the individual woman to the community to a functioning health care system.  Hopes for trained midwives, new birthing clinics, decent maternity wards, real family planning, clean water, nutrition, education….the dreams were endless, the lobbying in Ottawa and other capitals tireless. 

There was a feeling that this time, something real would happen. Something akin to the excitement that must have been generated when AIDS advocates first got their first big transfusion of funds that started saving lives.  A transfusion, by the way, they now feel is drying up.

Even when the Initiative got bogged down in a stupid and senseless debate over abortion; even when the Harper government froze the aid budget; even as darker clouds gathered over Europe, they still had a belief that the stories of so many women and children dying so needlessly had finally gotten through and that something would be done.

What went so badly wrong?  The dust will settle.  The stories will start to emerge from the delegations.  But it’s pretty obvious right now that Canada’s leadership going into this was precarious.  How can you ask your friends to ante up big dollars, when you’ve just frozen your own aid budget?   The Government’s abortion position was an obvious irritant to the Big Players.  Remember Hillary Clinton’s outburst?  But many are wondering how much political capital Harper spent, trooping around the world trying to stomp down any idea of taxing the banks. What price did he pay for instance, in dismissing Sarkozy and Merkel's ideas for a Financial Transaction Tax?   Had he put as much passion into talking up the virtues of going big on maternal and child health as he did on shooting down the idea of making the banks pay their fair share, perhaps he’d have had more credibility when it came to eliciting action on a global tragedy. 

Dorothy Ngoma is Executive Director of  Malawi’s National Association of Midwives and Nurses.   In her country, she watches 16 women a day die needlessly ever day.

This morning she asked journalists “Who is going to protect these women?”

The answer this evening is apparently “We won’t.”

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