Aid groups slam lack of financial support for maternal and infant health initiative

As world leaders gather to discuss the global economy, demonstrators want their message heard.
By Howard Schneider and William Branigin
Saturday, June 26, 2010

TORONTO -- Canada announced on Friday a multibillion-dollar initiative to combat infant mortality and improve maternal health globally, but the aid package was far smaller than expected, undercut by a new drive toward austerity that reduced the contributions of wealthy nations.

Aid groups promptly slammed the $7.3 billion effort as insufficient, having expected the world's richest nations to follow through on a commitment to give $10 billion to their poorer counterparts.

The package "failed to translate into the bold leadership needed to save these lives," said Michael Klosson, associate vice president of Save the Children.

Canada's initiative emerged as the major development venture under discussion at a round of summit meetings here among the world's major industrialized nations. Named after the lakeside resort where leaders of the Group of Eight nations gathered Friday, the Muskoka Initiative is part of what officials say is an effort to concentrate on core development goals. But the plan highlighted how world economic dynamics have made a sudden lurch toward less government spending.

"Leaders have been very cautious in terms of the promises they made," said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who argued that the upside was that the commitments would almost certainly be fulfilled.

The package's smaller size also echoed how other large financial commitments made by the group have lagged. For example, a promise five years ago to deliver $50 billion in additional development assistance has produced only about half that much.

Aid organizations said that talk of new initiatives rings hollow when earlier ones have been ignored.

In a press release, the anti-hunger group Oxfam called the proposal "smoke and mirrors." Overall foreign aid from the G-8 is "flatlining," the group said, adding that "any 'new' money for maternal health will have to be taken from vital areas such as education and food."

Under the plan, wealthy nations -- including the United States, Japan and major European powers -- would contribute $5 billion, with $2.3 billion coming from less-developed nations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Melinda Gates is a director of The Washington Post Co.)

Canada said that it is committing nearly $3 billion to the initiative. But part of that funding was already pledged, a fact that aid groups say makes assessing the new program difficult. The new funding from Canada amounts to about $1.1 billion over the next five years, and the existing money comes to $1.75 billion.

Klosson said the extra money the administration put toward the program this year amounted to a "rounding error."

An administration official said the United States was not offering anything beyond $1.3 billion it had already planned to spend this year and next on maternal and child health programs.

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