Canada is committing another $3.5 billion to improve global maternal, newborn and child health, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today on the sidelines of the government's health summit in Toronto.

It's a huge step toward the goal of ending the preventable deaths of mothers and children under the age of five, a cause the Conservative government declared a "flagship development priority." 

Harper made the announcement alongside his wife Laureen, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, Tanzania​n President Jakaya Kikwete, Melinda Gates and International Development Minister Christian Paradis.

"It is good work, it is great work, it’s work that is making a difference between life and death, and so I believe that this work must not stop,” Harper said.

The $3.5-billion pledge is more than twice the $1.1 billion originally promised at the 2010 G8 summit, and it builds on the Muskoka Initiative's total $2.85-billion commitment from Canada (80 per cent of which has, so far, been disbursed).

Kids Moms Harper 20140529

From left: Tanzanian president Jakaya M. Kikwete, Queen Rania of Jordan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Melinda Gates, and Laureen Harper posing for a photograph with students. The government pledged an additional $3.5 billion over five years towards improving global maternal, newborn and child health on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"This new phase from 2015 to 2020 will focus on the best programming, innovation and partnerships from the past four years and it will be given increased financial resources," Harper said.

The new commitment maintains the Muskoka Initiative's target areas of health, nutrition and disease. 

It will also focus on newborn health within the first month of life, as well as step up immunization efforts to tackle preventable diseases.

The abortion issue rears its head

Liberal critic for international co-operation Kirsty Duncan said she is "pleased" the government is renewing its funding.

"We want to see that stable, long-term commitment," she said, adding that these are not problems that can be resolved over only a few years.

However, she said "the devil's in the details" and many questions still remain, including whether a push for reproductive health will be included.

The Official Opposition critic for international development Hélène Laverdière expressed the same sentiment.

"It’s like a chair missing a leg to some extent,” she said.

Laverdière said the theme of the summit is to save every woman, every child, but pointed out there are 47,000 women who die each year from unsafe abortions. 

Reproductive health includes family planning, contraception and the contentious issue of abortion.

When asked by reporters, Paradis evaded the question of why abortion isn't included in the next phase. 

"We are active where we make a real difference. When I think about nutrition — 45 per cent of the cause of the death — I think that this is the kind of areas that we have to put the emphasis," he said following Harper's announcement.

MDG No. 5 possible, NGOs say

Non-profit organizations, such as Amref Health Africa, have said it would be possible to achieve Millennium Development Goal No. 5 of reducing the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters (from 1990 to 2015) if the Muskoka Initiative was to be renewed with similar funding.

In a report released this month, the World Health Organization estimates that there were 289,000 maternal deaths in 2013 – a 45 per cent decrease since 1990. 

Today's announcement is Canada's push to ensure that improving maternal, newborn and child health will be a key priority when the world decides on its development strategy post-2015 (the deadline year for both the Muskoka Initiative and the Millennium Development Goals).

The government said it will hold consultations with experts and partner countries to decide on how to invest the funds. Non-profit organizations can begin applying for funds once the government launches its call for proposals in September.

Today is day two of the Saving Every Woman, Every Child: Within Arm's Reach global health summit, featuring keynote speeches from the Aga Khan, Queen Rania and Gates. The event wraps up tomorrow.