Canada's pledge of $1.1 billion to a global initiative on maternal and child health for developing countries is a "disproportionate contribution" compared with that of other G8 countries, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday.
Speaking at an evening G8 summit session near Huntsville, Ont., Harper said G8 members have committed $5 billion over the next five years to the so-called Muskoka Initiative and that other countries will pitch in more than $2.3 billion for a total of $7.3 billion.
"Canada has far and away the strongest financial position, fiscal position, of any country that’s sitting around that table today," Harper said. "[Maternal and child health] has been our flagship initiative for this particular conference. So, I thought it was more than appropriate that Canada lead with a disproportionate contribution.
"And I think this will be strongly supported by the Canadian public."
Earlier, Harper said the government will also renew $1.75 billion in existing spending, bringing Canada's total contribution to maternal and child health initiatives to $2.85 billion over the next five years.
Harper, as host leader of the summit, announced in December he would promote the maternal health initiative to other G8 leaders in an attempt to galvanize global support for dramatically reducing the number of women in the developing world who die in childbirth, as well as the number of children who succumb to preventable diseases.
The Muskoka Initiative will include an accountability mechanism to ensure the G8 follows through on its commitments, the prime minister said.
Harper said skepticism that the G8 countries will not be able to meet their commitments is unwarranted, since the countries public report that clearly states the results from the various countries.
"My observation has been that leaders have actually been very, very cautious in terms of the pledges they have made. I don’t think you will again see leaders go out and make pledges that they don’t intend to keep or that they really haven’t thought about very thoroughly," he said.
The funding pledge came after Harper formally welcomed the leaders of the seven other Group of Eight leading economic powers — France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States and Russia — at the Muskoka region's exclusive Deerhurst Resort before they join other G20 delegates in Toronto on Saturday.
UN chief 'counting on' Canada
In an interview Friday with CBC's Power & Politics from New York, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Harper's announcement and called on other G8 leaders to contribute.
"I sincerely hope that other countries will also follow the Canadian example, but we need much, much more at this time," Ban said.
Ban also said he was "counting on" the Canadian government's leadership to ensure industrialized countries deliver on their promises.
Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said G8 leaders seem very interested in the maternal health initiative but added it was premature to speculate whether individual leaders would make their own personal pledges.
"So far, the discussions have been in a positive direction," Soudas told reporters. "Non-G8 countries have also expressed interest in it. We obviously welcome contributions from non-G8 countries."
Critics call for 'clear' plan
But the Harper government's plan is not without controversy, since Canada has said its share of the money cannot be used to fund abortions.
Meg French, director of international programs for UNICEF Canada, wants more than a vague promise from leaders.
"I'd like to see not just a commitment to reducing the deaths of women and children — but a clear plan for getting to there," French said.
French said there are a lot of ways to improve the health of women and children. Each country — including Canada — should be able to find initiatives to fund, she said, noting politicians can turn for ideas to the seven African leaders who will also be at the summit.
"This cannot be a plan that's implemented on countries," she said. "This has got to be a joint plan."
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has called on leaders to honour earlier funding commitments, saying implementation of previous G8 initiatives to fight hunger, poverty and disease has fallen short.
But building a consensus for this summit has been a challenge, as some countries don't want specific commitments to be made public.
Divisions on financial reform
Financial reform and the economic recovery will be on the agenda at the G20 meeting in Toronto over the weekend. But unity on financial reform is proving elusive as the urgency of the financial meltdown passes.
World leaders are divided on a number of key financial issues, including a proposal to slap a tax on major international banks. European nations such as England, France and Germany want an international tax on financial transactions, to pay for future bank bailouts, something Canada is strongly opposed to.
And with different countries emerging from recession at different rates, there is division on how quickly the unprecedented stimulus spending should be unwound.
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The United States is leading the charge for more government spending to kick-start its moribund economy, while Canada is urging leaders to turn their attention to tackling their bloated federal deficits.
During his brief remarks to reporters after a meeting Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Harper praised the British leader's "responsible and difficult decisions" in his recent budget, saying they highlighted the "fiscal consolidation" that Canada is trying to steer the G20 toward on the weekend.
Police powers expanded for G20
Meanwhile, in Toronto, the Ontario government has quietly given thousands of police officers preparing for the arrival of G20 leaders and protesters special powers for the duration of the summit.
Under the new regulations, anyone who comes within five metres of the security area is obliged to give police their name and state the purpose of their visit on request.
Anyone who fails to provide identification or explain why they are near the security zone can be searched and arrested.
Security costs for the G8/G20 summit are expected to surpass $1 billion. The government has defended the amount, saying the spending is needed to protect the leaders, as well as thousands of delegates and reporters.