Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke of a "wave of hope" for child and maternal health in developing nations Wednesday as he opened a UN meeting in Geneva, but stressed the need for the "highest standards of accountability" for a $40-billion program.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Tanzanian President Jakawa Kikwete at the World Health Organization in Geneva on Wednesday. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Harper became co-chair of the UN commission to monitor the implementation of the massive initiative after he championed the issue at last year's G8 meetings in in Ontario's Muskoka region.

"Improvements to the health, education and living conditions of millions of women and children will mean a wave of hope that will ripple through the developing world," said Harper, while also underlining the need to ensure the $40-billion investment is carefully spent.

"We understand that we must strive to build support not just for our noble objectives, but also for our commitment to the highest standards of oversight and accountability for the dollars that we are dedicating to them."

Inside Politics blog

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Terry Milewski

Accountability? At the UN? This should be interesting...

Having pledged more than a billion dollars of Canadians' money to maternal health, Stephen Harper is now trying to make sure the cash isn't pocketed by sticky-fingered autocrats and bureaucrats. Thus far, the omens are not good …

During last summer's G8 summit, Canada agreed to donate $1.1 billion for the UN initiative, which has the goal of reducing maternal and child mortality in the developing world by 75 per cent.

Although the $40-billion program offers much potential to improve health, monitoring the spending will be a challenge.

Earlier this week, an audit of the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international fund that Canada contributes to, turned up evidence of corruption.

The Geneva meeting will deal with developing a framework to monitor the ambitious program.

Harper and his co-chair, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, face a challenge in tracking the pledges and money set to flow from countries, foundations, corporations and non-governmental organizations.

'You have to provide full reproductive help'

In Ottawa, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he respects the prime minister's work on the file but questioned the government's credibility.

"It's important to give credit where it's due," Ignatieff said. "Any time Canada helps on maternal health, that's great. But you have to provide full reproductive help for women.

"It's not credible to go to Geneva making promises on maternal health when you are slashing our foreign aid budget."

At a separate press conference, NDP MP John Rafferty said his party is concerned that the maternal health fund may have earmarks limiting access to abortion.

With files from The Canadian Press