Monday May 26, 2014

Critics question Canada's performance on maternal and child health

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Ahead of an international summit on child and maternal health in developing countries, critics are saying Canada has not done enough to meet its own benchmarks on transparency and accountability.

"Together we are committed to moving the world towards a day when women in developing countries will not die or suffer disabilities from pregnancy or childbirth."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

It has been nearly four years since Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced to the world that Canada, and he personally, would lead the charge to reduce the number of women and children who die from poor health care around the world. Mr. Harper used his platform as host of the G8 Summit in 2010 to launch the Muskoka Iniatiative, and Canada pledged a new $1.1 billion in aid.

Critics objected to the government's stand that none of the money would go toward providing abortions in developing countries. But despite the controversy, on the international stage, Prime Minister Harper is recognized as a champion of the cause.

The Prime Minister used the forum at the United Nations last year to remind the world that changing poor outcomes for women and children is about more than money:

"I think the most important thing to note about what happened at Muskoka wasn't simply the monies pledged, but that monies were pledged around a framework, around a firm condition that delivering on such commitments is what is actually important..."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

In attendance at the Maternal, Newborn an Child Health Summit, which begins in Toronto on Wednesday, will be United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization; and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As the Prime Minister prepares to host those high profile guests, he's facing criticism again. This time, the charge is that his own government is not living up to the accountability standards he touted as vital, and helped to shape.

Freelance journalist Paul Webster has questioned Canada's record in an article he wrote for the medical journal The Lancet this month.

Even if the government's transparency is being questioned, some agencies say they've seen the positive results of Canada's commitment first hand. Here's what Sara Shultz, the child health policy advisor at World Vision Canada, had to say:

What we're doing is strengthening the work of the local health system to be able to deliver essential health services to the most vulnerable women and children. So, that's things like training community health workers, that's facilitating community conversations around what are the best health practices, what are the most nutritious foods you should be feeding your children, and supporting the work of community health workers.

Those programs, and hundreds of others like it, are tracked by the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which was formed in the wake of the G8's Muskoka Initiative.

Part of its mandate is to improve collaboration and accountability among 70 Canadian organization that work in maternal health around the world. It receives a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, but operates at arms-length from the government.

Helen Scott is the Director of the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, and an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. She joined us from Peterborough, Ontario.

"There are still so many women and children that are invisible, that are uncounted, that we don't know about...I think the opportunity for this summit is is to figure out what are the really practical ways that we can reach these women and children."

Sara Shultz, World Vision Canada's child health policy advisor

Have thoughts you want to share about the upcoming summit?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Josh Bloch.