Sizing up the G8's maternal and child health promise

There’s much debate and some confusion here in the Toronto media centre for the G8 and G20 summits about what to make of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement earlier this evening on cash for maternal and child health.

The questions revolve around whether the G8 has come up with as much as could reasonably have been expected, or less. The conclusions experts on development assistance come to, as they comb through the details, could go a long way to determining if this summit is deemed a success or a disappointment.

Harper said Canada promised $1.1 billion in new money to be spent over five years, as part of $5 billion from the G8 as a whole. Another $2.3 billion has been anted up by guest countries at the G8 table (such as, for example, South Korea and Switzerland), plus pledges from a couple of major aid funds (notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

That $7.3 billion figure should be understood in the context of the $30 billion over the next five years that’s estimated to be needed to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals on maternal and child health. (Those UN goals: reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds by 2015, cut the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters, and provide universal access to reproduction health serves.)

Independent analysts on hand here for the summit tell me the G8 (including other countries that sit in on its meetings on development assistance) is expected to come up with $10 billion of that $30 billion. The leaves $20 billion to be provided by other countries, including many who will be on hand here tomorrow and Sunday for the G20.

If $10 billion is the rough sum the G8 needs to deliver, then $7.3 billion seems to fall short. One veteran summit-watcher, however, reminded me that more can still be pledged at G8 meetings over the next four years. But will it?

Harper pointed out that this year many of the G8 countries are grappling with bloated deficits—hangovers from the stimulus they collectively pumped into the global economy to combat last year’s recession—and so were particularly cautious today about what they agreed to contribute.

If it’s the short-term fiscal situation of the G8 members that’s dampening their enthusiasm for boosting aid spending, an optimist might hope that as they bring their deficits under control, the rest of the need maternal and child health money will flow.

A pessimist, though, might look at the painful cuts and tax hikes many might have to impose in the years ahead—presaged, perhaps, by the recent British budget—and worry that the day when the political leaders of the rich countries will feel more open-handed isn’t coming anytime soon.

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