Prime Minister Stephen Harper has told the United Nations General Assembly that saving the lives of the world's most vulnerable mothers and their children is not only a global priority, but an issue "closest to his heart."

"Closest to my heart, is the worldwide struggle upon which so many of you have been engaged," Harper said in a speech to the general assembly Thursday night.

"Saving the lives of children and mothers is a fight we can win. To get it done, two things are needed now: the political focus and renewed financial commitment."

 Harper urged members of the UN general assembly to support a new fund to be run by the World Bank, just as the governments of Canada, U.S. and Norway did earlier today when they announced a commitment of nearly $4 billion to improve maternal, newborn and child health.

"I know we all have many competing priorities… but to have come so far that to stop now would be a tragedy," Harper said during his speech to the UN general assembly. 

The fund is part of an initiative launched by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September 2010, called Every Woman, Every Child, whose goal is to save the lives of 16 million women and children by the end of 2015.

Harper announced that Canada has earmarked $200 million toward the credit fund. Canada's pledge is part of the five-year $3.5-billion commitment Harper announced in May.

"We will put $100 million towards the projects that support maternal, newborn and child health directly, as well as $100 million towards civil registration and vital statistics, which we think is an important next step."

"Until we actually make sure that every child that is born is actually registered and has an official existence, until we reached that day, we will not truly value their lives the way we should," Harper said earlier today.

The UN has set 2015 as the deadline for hitting its Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets for reducing global poverty.

Ray Chambers, the UN secretary general's special envoy for malaria, said the $4 billion commitment would help "kick start a process that aims to close the financing gap that currently exists for women and children's health. This will support our efforts through the Millennium Development Goals and beyond."

Child mortality rates down

Maternal and newborn deaths have plummeted over the last two decades, but not enough to meet those goals. Harper said he's glad the cause has momentum on its side.

"I'm pleased to see that not only do these meetings keep growing in size, but so do commitments," Harper said, referring to progress since he put the issue on the agenda of a G8 meeting in Muskoka in 2010.

He then turned to the World Bank president seated next to him, Jim Yong Kim, and made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the plan to leverage private money: "I want to congratulate Jim and the World Bank," Harper said, "for using the financial expertise of Wall Street for good."

The head of UNICEF Canada said the government's work on that file is being noticed among his colleagues elsewhere in the world.

David Morley said the solutions to maternal and newborn deaths are relatively simple — they just require money and political will.

He cited three areas in particular: more trained nurses in outlying communities, better access to telecommunicatons technology, like text messaging, and cooling equipment to keep vaccines cold during transportation.

Harper's commitment saluted

The UN Millennium Development Goals set out a target of reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.

That target won't be achieved, as was emphasized in a new UNICEF report.

But that report also concluded that the number of deaths has declined by half — not only in absolute terms, but also per capita — dropping from 90 to 46 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013.

"These are impressive numbers in a conference room in New York. They are even more meaningful in hospitals," said Ban Ki-moon, who appeared at the event before Harper and colleagues from Norway and the U.S. spoke.

"In today's troubled world, our progress in this area shines brightly. It demonstrates what we can achieve when we come together."

Morley called it a "child-survival revolution."

Someone else who works with the Canadian government on the file saluted the commitment.

"[Harper] could have chosen so many other issues at the time he hosted the G8," said Rosemary McCarney, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Network For Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

"He could have chosen a trade issue, or a fiscal policy issue, but he chose this issue."

HARPER GOVERNMENT UN SPEECHES

Mobile users, view a graphic by The Canadian Press on the government's speeches to the UN over the past decade.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Canada earmarked $1 billion over five years to the credit fund. In fact, the Department of Foreign Affairs says Canada has earmarked $200 million.
    Sep 25, 2014 6:05 PM ET
With files from The Canadian Press