Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened a three-day conference today dedicated to preventing newborns in developing nations and their mothers from needlessly dying, expressing hope that the project could "make a tremendous difference to human life around the world."

Maternal mortality

  • Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • Between 1990 and 2013, maternal mortality worldwide dropped by almost 50%.

Source: World Health Organization fact sheet

Harper has called the maternal health initiative a "flagship" development priority for his government.

Seated next to his Tanzanian counterpart, President Jakaya Kikwete, the prime minister said the public should recognize that some of the anxieties of an affluent, developed society "pale in comparison" to the issues of life and death that some people living in poor countries encounter every day.

Academics, business leaders, maternal health experts and NGO workers converged at Toronto's Royal York Hotel for the international Saving Every, Woman Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach summit. The conference follows through on Harper's promise during the 2010 G8 summit to reduce the maternal and early childhood mortality rate in poor countries.

'Keep the momentum' beyond 2015

That year, Canada pledged $2.85 billion until 2015 towards fighting the problem as part of its Muskoka Initiative. The government has so far spent about 80 per cent of the funding commitment, with a goal to save 16 million lives by the 2015 deadline.

Even "modest contributions" can go a long way towards giving a mother and her children a chance at healthy physical development, Harper said Wednesday.

'By doing these things at very little cost, we are able to make a tremendous difference to the very building blocks of human life around the world.' - Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister

"By doing these things at very little cost, we are able to make a tremendous difference to the very building blocks of human life around the world in a way that will be truly transformative towards a much better planet," he said.

Kikwete, who co-chairs the UN Commission on Women’s and Children’s Health with Harper, lauded the Canadian prime minister for helping to lead a conversation on global maternal health.

Kikwete said that it's also important to think beyond the September 2015 timeline to "keep the momentum going" and save more lives.

"Come 2015, let's see how much has been achieved and what more needs to be done, and when we look at the post-2015 agenda … the unfinished business has to be finished," he said.

"We cannot say come September 2015, we take up something else. We have to keep the momentum going because many children still die."

Nearly three million newborn babies die every year, and another 2.6 million babies are stillborn, according to the World Health Organization. However, the maternal mortality rate dropped by nearly half between 1990 and 2013.

Participants at the summit are expected to include United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.