The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: child and maternal health

Credit Due

Just in time for Christmas, Stephen Harper and the UN Secretary General have opted to give the world a gift that has some goodness and purpose in it. Last week, Ban Ki-moon announced the establishment of a special commission designed to push those nations that made commitments to child and women’s health to keep up their end of the bargain. All too often promises made at G8 and G20 summits chronically under-deliver, but with maternal health showing the worst advancement of all the Millennium Development Goals, the Secretary General believed it needed some serious work and follow-up.

His selection of the Canadian PM to co-chair the commission along with President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, is an attempt to throw a lifeline out to the entire MDG process. Announced with great fanfare, these goals were a joint effort to rid the world of some of its most brutal poverty. But most donor nations have fallen short, including Canada, leaving the success of the entire effort unsure. Our PM was a sensible choice, since he opted to front the entire child and maternal health initiative at the Toronto and Muskoka summits last June. The commission will develop an accountability framework to help countries monitor where resources go and how they are spent, and will provide the evidence needed to show which programmes are most effective to save the lives of women and children and will hold its first meeting on 26 January next year, presenting its final report by May.

In September, stakeholders committed $40 billion in resources to a global effort to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015. In addition, the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health called for the World Health Organization to establish a process to determine the most effective international institutional arrangements for global reporting, oversight and accountability for women’s and children’s health.

I have spent some time with various officials from the United Nations lately, with most expressing concern over this country’s loss of influence in key areas of the world, from Africa to the Middle East. Confusion appears to abound over what kind of presence Canada wishes to have and exert around the globe, but by selecting child and maternal health as his focus for the G8/G20 summits, Stephen Harper has taken a clear step towards providing sufficient and accountable aid to the world’s most vulnerable women and children. Credit is due for his effort.

As it is for Ban Ki-moon and the United Nations leadership. The UN personnel I recently spoke to say that the Secretary General and many of his underlings have opted to use the carrot approach to draw Canada back to its worldwide possibilities through the UN framework, in everything from aid and trade, to peacekeeping and public service. The challenge of climate change has been exempted because of Canada little interest in the file.

So here we have it. Two key individuals, working together for the sake of the most vulnerable in the world. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven, and the Secretary General’s concern over our loss influence is compelling and widespread. But in staking his own personal commitment to the child and maternal health initiative, Stephen Harper deserves a clear shot for assisting the UN to at least partially succeed in meeting its most troubling goals. In return, Ban Ki-moon has tossed Canada a lifeline once more, calling on us to up our game, not only for our own reputation, but for the sake of a needy world. It could be an effective teaming of resources and we should commend both sides of the equation for their determination.

500 Year-old Problems

Finally, a realistic approach.  In an op-ed in today’s National Post, development observers Brett House and Desiree McGraw effectively said “enough already.” Reminding all of us of the propensity for successive G8 gatherings to make broad and expansive promises that they likely will never attain, they stake out a clear challenge to simply fulfill the promises already made in past years rather than raising the bar even higher with no hope of completion.

Neither of the authors of the piece are lightweights. McGraw is a professor of international development at McGill University and former senior policy analyst in the CIDA minister’s office, while House is the Senior Macroeconomist at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and former Principal Advisor to the present United Nations Secretary General.  They come with experience, clout, and, in this case, timely restraint, as when they state:

The University of Toronto’s G8 Resource Group estimates that some 254 commitments were made during Italy’s 2009 G8 Summit alone. Looking at 24 of the highest priority commitments, it found that G8 members have, on average, succeeded in going only about one-third of the way to making good on these promises. It’s hard to imagine that lower priority commitments have fared any better.”

Successive governments have partaken in an image cycle, where each year they raise commitments to impossibly high levels as they seek to adopt the mantle of international leadership and attempt to assuage domestic voters at the same time.  All this leads to a kind of perversity where the present matters more than the future, and the past is a littered graveyard of unfulfilled promises.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, under considerable pressure from aid organizations and other partner countries, commensurately announced a major new initiative for this year’s G8, pertaining to child and maternal health.  Yet as House/McGraw remind us: Canada and the other G8 members already made that commitment in 2005 as part of their signing on to the Millennium Develop Goals (MDGs).  Of all of these 8 key goals, the G8, including Canada, faces the greatest failure in the area of child and maternal health, which raises the question:  Why would we commit to a new initiative when we have yet to come even close to attaining our 2005 commitment?

Stephen Harper and Bev Oda would do far better to develop a constructive mechanism, accompanied by clear targets and timelines, as to how these key developed nations could actually fulfill an earlier promise rather than reducing past commitments to the ash heap while we price ourselves out of reality with some new kind of aspirations.

Canada is not alone in its failure to take such a task seriously.  While there will be heightened rhetoric and flourish at the G8 meetings next month, we are nevertheless confronted by a lack of political commitment.  And many wonder whether CIDA is actually up to that task.  One applicant for development funding made this comment to the Agency itself:  “You ask for 5 year strategic plans to develop 3 year projects with annual business plans and quarterly payment based on results – for a problem that is 500 years old.”  This kind of Gordian knot in development funding plagues CIDA to this day.  Like House and McGraw, this applicant drew a clear distinction between solid, achievable targets and the kind of rhetoric that makes exorbitant promises while lacking a clear mechanism for delivery.

The present government, while doing the world a service in focusing on a crucial problem, would find its time better spent just in helping its partners to find some way of at least attaining past commitments.  That way, the G8 itself will not be in vain.

Getting Past The Promises

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.

A Clear Answer But A Present Danger

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – As I arrived at the G8 Development Ministers summit here today, protestors were still making their sentiments felt from a small park across from the hotel. It was an eclectic group, comprised of critics for financial transactions, trade reform, and workers rights organizations.

One group apparently came to life later in the afternoon after the government’s parliamentary secretary for International Development rose during Question Period and stated firmly that his government would in no way fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health initiative as part of its CIDA funding. This marked the first time the Harper Conservatives had disclosed that abortion was excluded. By the time news of that pronouncement reached the protestors here in Halifax it pumped new life into their grievances.

Abortion is a hot button issue, to be sure, and Canadians remain divided over it. Nevertheless, access to the full range of family planning options (which includes the option of abortion) has been a part of Canadian foreign aid policy for years. Furthermore, many of our partnering donor nations have held to similar ground for decades. Then suddenly the Conservatives announced a short while ago that their program for child and maternal health might include contraception. This caused a ripple in the international donor community. But when the government then stated it didn’t want to reintroduce the debate about abortion itself, it ironically opened the floodgates of consternation about Canada’s leadership role in child and maternal health around the world.

The Conservatives are naturally allowed their own policy pronouncements, but the difference with this one is that it breaks a long-held tradition of past Canadian governments (Conservative and Liberal), as well as those of our other partners. To say that those partners have no issue with this is a clear and outlandish misnomer. Hilary Clinton came to Ottawa to express her outrage at the Conservative policy, and British Foreign Minister David Millband has spoken out forcefully for safe and viable abortions as part of any effective child and maternal health policy.

When the parliamentary secretary stood in his place today and gave his unequivocal answer on abortion, he very likely was speaking from his conscience and also appeasing his base.  In doing so, sadly, he placed our partners once again in a difficult position of actually being in Canada and having great difficulty with our policies. These are the same partners who stood back astonished that the Canadians pulled out of various African countries just at the time they themselves were all recommitting future efforts to that continent.

Our G8 partners have assembled here in Halifax hoping that Canada will provide solid leadership for the poorest women and children of the world. Thanks to the answer in today’s QP, they are more confused than ever. And as far as the women and children are concerned, the poorest and most destitute live in Africa while we’ve moved to Latin America.  It’s a unique Canadian circle that our partners just can’t square. Oh, they’ll be supportive to the media and on the surface thank Canada for its leadership, but they are confused, and more than that they’re concerned.

It’s good to have morals and principles, yet breaking understandings with key partners can also be an act of ethical failure, as it is do deny desperate women the choices they require.  We’ve got to just hope that the abortion issue doesn’t derail the good work that can be done here.  The Conservatives have introduced the issue by denying it.  Nevertheless, Bev Oda has a unique opportunity to construct a comprehensive plan of action for child and maternal health, and I wish her well.  It’s just hard for Canada to design that edifice when it’s missing some key tools in its toolbox.  More later.

Mile Wide, Inch Deep – A Sunday Read

This past October, I completed a book on the personal story of a woman in Darfur, whose entire life was turned repeatedly upside down whenever Western governments made “moral” edicts on those perpetrating the violence in that troubled region of the world.  Actions such as the indictment of the Sudanese President by the International Criminal Court inevitably meant more tragedy for the woman in the story.  The book concluded by stating that it remains unfair for us to make moral declarations when in reality we aren’t there on the ground to assist the woman whose life is inevitably endangered by our pronouncements.

That conclusion came to my mind again a few weeks ago as the debate on child and maternal health swirled around Parliament Hill.  Two Conservative anti-abortion MPs submitted an op-ed promoting their stance, which is, of course, their right. They dumped too much water in their wine, however, when they concluded:  “We owe it to pregnant women to provide them with compassionate, caring support so that they do not feel trapped into resorting to abortion, regardless of its legal status.  We owe it to the most vulnerable citizens of the developing world – pregnant mothers and their babies – to provide the resources they need to survive pregnancy.”

Their reasoning was simple enough: it’s far better to offer a poverty-stricken woman all the resources she requires for a meaningful life (food, water, adequate healthcare, education, etc.), instead of leaving her in a destitute state in which abortion becomes an option.  Sounds reasonable.  Two MPs challenged their own Prime Minister to keep abortion out of the debate and out of women’s options. The problem was that they were elected representatives in a party that had just finished supporting a $4.5 billion cut from CIDA’s projected budget and which recently just pulled its long-term development funds out of 8 African nations.  These were the very resources desperately required by the women they were talking about.

One of the constant temptations in politics is the ability to moralize on very complex matters.  We agonize for the woman in Darfur mentioned earlier, and so we utter strong pronouncements about the country’s president, calling for his indictment.  But we have no intention whatsoever of actually going to Darfur and standing by her side as the effects of our empty rhetoric rain down upon her.  My two Conservative colleagues have the benefit of making moral pronouncements, including op-eds, without ever having to actually deliver the goods.

Both religious men, I’m sure the story of the Good Samaritan is a favourite.  But it’s also instructive.  The religious and societal elite repeatedly pass by a destitute man lying in a ditch in his travail without lifting a finger to assist, until at last an outcast himself attends to his needs. Jesus used the story to condemn the sheer emptiness of the morality of his age. Put in simpler terms: if you can’t practice, don’t bother preaching.

Well-known Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura wrote in 1925: “Moral justification is a powerful disengagement mechanism.”  Well, that’s what we have here.  Morality can become hypocrisy if it means the sheer acceptance of destitute mothers while we attempt to claim the moral high ground. It’s morality a mile wide and an inch deep. We all fail at times in this regard as MPs, but this time it actually costs the women.

Possessing a moral conscience costs something, and if my two MP colleagues sincerely value their reasoning, then the first thing they should be doing is decrying what the present government is undertaking by pulling away from the very poorest women in the world they claim to be defending.  Write an op-ed on that, and request your leader to restore the earlier CIDA budget calling for an 8 percent increase per year in aid to these women over the next five years.  Sadly, it won’t happen because that kind of morality costs many things – likely their jobs.

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