TORONTO – One half of the world’s most powerful philanthropic couple praised Stephen Harper’s child and maternal health initiative Thursday, urging governments everywhere to support it for their own economic good.
Melinda Gates, who along with her husband Bill runs the Gates Foundation, said Canada has become an important partner in finding innovative ways to help the world’s poorest people.
Gates gave the keynote speech at Harper’s international conference on child and maternal health, a followup to his 2010 G8 Muskoka Initiative, which aims to reduce the millions of yearly deaths of young mothers, newborns and young children in developing countries.
Gates made clear she has the heft to advocate for the less fortunate, on whatever side of the power corridor she chooses to walk.
“When I talk to health ministers from developing countries, they want to hear how we can reduce mortality,” she said.
“When I talk to finance ministers, they want to hear how we can increase GDP. Well, let’s make sure everybody knows that the answer is the same in both cases: Invest in the health of women and children.”
Calling global health her second career, she said there are solid economic reasons why the world no longer has to tolerate the deaths of far too many women and children.
“People still say that caring for women and children is too big an investment for too uncertain a return,” she said.
“We know that they’re wrong, and we have powerful evidence that investing in women’s and children’s health generates an enormous return.”
Gates lauded Harper for his “powerful advocacy on behalf of people in developing countries.”
“Under your leadership, and with the support of many people in this room, Canada has earned a global reputation for driving the agenda when it comes to women and children,” she said.
“The Muskoka Initiative rallied the entire world around saving mothers and their babies.”
Gates said it has attracted attention and investments that have brought once elusive goals to within “arm’s reach.”
The Conservative government invested $2.8 billion in 2010; Harper himself is expected to make a new funding announcement later in the day.
The Gates Foundation was a major contributor, along with several countries, to the more than $7 billion that Harper raised at the G8 summit Canada hosted four years ago.
Gates also credited International Development Minister Christian Paradis with strengthening Canada’s relationship with non-governmental organizations.
The comment appeared to be aimed at Harper’s critics who say he is using the most basic motherhood issue to boost domestic support.
She said Canada deserves credit for funding organizations that have tried to eradicate polio AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
And she said Canada leads the way — along with the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation — in encouraging greater emphasis on collecting vital statistics on births and deaths.
“Nearly six billion people are not covered by reliable cause of death statistics. In other words, we don’t know how three-quarters of the global population dies, which makes it very hard to allocate resources effectively when you’re trying to prevent those deaths.”
While the number of young children and mothers dying has been halved since 1990, Gates said that’s not good enough.
She said the vast majority of the 2.9 million infants who die each year in their first month of life, including the one million newborns who die on their first day, could be saved with simple interventions that are readily available in most developing countries.
These include fostering breast feeding, properly drying newborns, so-called “kangaroo care” that encourages skin-to-skin contact and teaching basic resuscitation techniques.
“Our work at the Gates Foundation is guided by a simple principle: all lives have equal value. We despise inequity,” she said.
She ended with a direct and passionate plea: “Let’s insist that no child should be born to die. Instead, let’s insist, from this day forward, that every baby born will be a promise kept.”
Earlier Thursday, Queen Rania of Jordan denounced the deaths of millions of mothers and newborns every year.
“These figures are more than a source of discontent; they are an outrage, an injustice and they have no place in our common humanity,” said the 43-year-old monarch of the tiny Middle East desert kingdom.
“So thank you to Prime Minister Harper and the Canadian government for being discontented with the status quo.”
The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, also praised Harper for leadership on the issue, but said much more needs to be done.
“The truth is that our efforts have been insufficient and uneven,” he said.
“At the same time we must avoid the risk of frustration that sometimes accompanies a moment of reassessment. Our challenge, as always, is to balance honest realism with helpful optimism.”