HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Canada’s hosting of this year’s G8 and G20 summits has placed a significant amount of pressure on the Harper government to show clear leadership at a time when international development in poorer countries is more required than ever.  When the Prime Minister announced that child and maternal health would form the subject of that leadership, many were heartened that a subject long-neglected would finally get due attention.

The meetings here in Halifax this week provided International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda with an opportunity to move other G8 partners towards a clear consensus on how to move ahead on the file in time for the official meetings in a few weeks in Ontario. For Oda though, there is one elephant in the room, and it’s not the abortion issue.  Rather, it’s the United Nations. Long before she became minister, the UN announced the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and challenged all key donor countries to meet those targets that would be required to reduce desperate poverty around the world. There are deadlines attached to these goals (2015), and the G8’s problem is that some of its members, including Canada itself, are a long way from attaining them.

The goals themselves are ambitious: reduce child mortality for those children under 5 by two-thirds and reduce the number of women who die while pregnant or in childbirth by 75 per cent. The goals were applauded when announced, but countries like Canada immediately fell behind and never caught up. This is what made the Prime Minister’s announcement a welcome one.

The problem remains, however: how do the G8 nations get there? With 2010 being the target year for the promises made at Gleneagles in 2005, achieving those goals still seems a long way off. And since CIDA itself announced a freezing of it’s budget for the next few years, it will be difficult for this country to provide the leadership required. The trick for Bev Oda at these Halifax meetings will be to move the participants to actually supply the funds required to child and maternal health and not just promise to do so. For years now, unfulfilled pledges have become a stigma of all G8 and G20 summits. Participating countries twisted themselves into pretzels in endeavouring to show that they were serious about such promises, even though they were never attained.  Funny math is frequently employed to show that participating donor countries are arcing towards their commitments, but, as with CIDA’s disingenuous earlier announcement that it has doubled its aid to Africa, all such maneuvering doesn’t actually assist the people in ground in troubled regions if the money never materializes.

Hearing from various experts addressing the G8 ministers yesterday, one got the clear impression, supported by detailed and concise evidence, that foreign aid is making a clear difference, and in fact has been doing so for a number of years.  In child and maternal health, however, Canada, like some of the other countries at the table, has failed to live up to its commitment. That’s what makes Stephen Harper’s decision to focus on the plight of women and children so vital.  Bev Oda spent the day yesterday subtly moving her counterparts into a plan of action to attain clear-cut goals by 2015. All nodded their heads in agreement, but the plight of millions hangs on the details. Repeatedly yesterday, Canada was thanked for making child and maternal health issues the focal point of this year’s G8, highlighting Oda’s role of keeping them on-track with the discussions.

The problem with all such meetings is that promises come easy while delivery on them can be rare. These meetings aren’t about abortion but women and children; at least we’re talking about the right subject.