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$40 Billion for Women and Children, Millions of Lives at Stake

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 22 2010 (IPS) - As a three-day anti-poverty talkfest drew to a close Wednesday, the United Nations shifted its focus from the poor and the hungry to two of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society: women and children.

Michelle Bachelet, head of U.N. Women, speaks to the press. Credit: Sriyantha Walpola/IPS

Michelle Bachelet, head of U.N. Women, speaks to the press. Credit: Sriyantha Walpola/IPS

The mission: a “massive drive” to save the lives of more than 16 million women and children dying of deadly diseases every year, primarily due to the lack of basic medical care.

The means: pledges and commitments of over 40 billion dollars in funding over the next five years from over 35 governments, 15 charitable institutions, seven U.N. agencies, 13 private corporations and more than 50 non- governmental organisations (NGOs).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the joint programme as “a remarkable effort” by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help developing nations meet two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate of children under the age of five, and slashing maternal mortality rates by three-quarters.

The developing world, which is most devastated by these deaths, has a five-year 2015 deadline to meet the two goals.

The secretary-general said an estimated 26-42 billion dollars will be required annually during 2011-2015 to meet the global targets on women’s and children’s health.

As he launched the ‘Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health,’ Ban said: “The 21st century must be and will be different for every woman and every child.”

Too Little, Too Late?

The three-day MDG summit of world leaders ended with the adoption of an "outcome document": a plan of action to accelerate progress towards achievement of the U.N.'s development goals through 2015.

Asked if this plan was just a theoretical exercise lacking concrete commitments, Joanna Kerr, chief executive of ActionAid, told IPS: "The outcome document is clearly trying to be all things to all people."

She described it as an aspirational document, but added "the world cannot be fed on aspiration alone".

"What we need is an emergency action plan for the goals that are most at risk, not an avalanche of promises on dozens of issues," she said.

Kerr said the United Nations must focus on the big challenges looming large over poor countries, such as hunger, climate change, and women's rights. "Without concerted action on these goals, they will remain off track," she predicted.

What is good, she pointed out, is that the outcome document recognises the crucial role that smallholder farmers play in the fight against hunger. Investing in women, who produce 80 percent of poor people's food, is the best way to avert another food crisis and will allow poor nations to grow themselves out of hunger.

But without any clear indication of when and how the money will reach those who need it, it remains unclear how the goal will be met, she noted.

Asked if anything positive came out of the summit, Kerr told IPS that a number of individual governments did announce laudable efforts to tackle poverty.

The global announcement of 40 billion dollars to save the lives of mothers and children is significant, she said. And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's commitment to fighting child undernutrition is encouraging - as is the UK's pledge to halve the number of malaria deaths in at least 10 African countries by 2015.

But together these initiatives add up to a piecemeal approach that will not deliver success on the MDGs, she added.

"With five years left to go, we are worried that this is too little, too late," said Kerr, whose international anti-poverty agency is based in South Africa.

“We know what works to save women’s and children’s lives, and we know that women and children are critical to all of the MDGs”, he noted.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS that “women who die are just the tip of the iceberg”.

Every year, she said, millions of women suffer injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth. One of the most severe is fistula: a devastating birth injury that often leaves women ostracised by their families and communities.

“We need more action. We have to strengthen health systems so they can deliver for women, when women are ready to deliver,” she added.

Obaid said the MDG lagging the most is the one on maternal health (MDG 5), which aims to reduce maternal deaths and ensure universal access to reproductive health by 2015.

She pointed out that improving maternal health is often called the heart of the MDGs because if it fails, the others will too.

Most maternal deaths can be prevented – and this would save lives and bring an enormous gain in world productivity. Every year, the world loses 15 billion dollars in productivity due to maternal and newborn mortality, Obaid declared.

The world is young. Nearly half the world’s population is under 25 years, and their choices regarding sexual and reproductive health will shape the future of our world.

Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile who was named last week as the executive director of the newly-established U.N. Women, told reporters Wednesday she is very conscious of the challenges facing the United Nations in relation to women.

She listed a litany of woes: maternal deaths, rape and sexual assaults, domestic violence and gender discrimination, amongst many others.

Bachelet said she was also aware that in some countries women are invisible or treated as second class citizens.

“I am a very realistic person. I would do it wisely,” she said, referring to the battles ahead when her new office becomes operational in January next year.

She said her office will have a budget of about 500 million dollars annually as the minimum needed.

“I urge all member states to make this investment a reality by backing their political commitment with the needed funds,” Bachelet said.

Meanwhile, an international alliance was launched Wednesday to support reproductive, maternal and newborn health.

The alliance includes the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Family planning plays a crucial role in improving the health of women and children throughout the world,” said USAID Administrator Raj Shah.

“By bringing the comparative advantages of country partners and donors through this alliance, we will bolster health outcomes in countries striving to improve the lives and health of its women, girls, and newborns,” he said.

But Emma Seery, spokesperson for Oxfam, expressed doubts about the pledges and commitments made at the summit.

In a statement released Wednesday, she said: “We have learned to be sceptical of big announcements at summits, and we question how much of this money can possibly be new.”

What really counts, she said, is where the money is coming from, which means leaders going home and putting that money into national budgets.

Seery said an additional 88 billion dollars is what is needed from now to 2015 to meet the child and maternal health goals, and anything less than this is not going to be enough for the world’s poorest people.

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