One of the most anticipated moments during the UN summit coming up later this month is a meeting on on maternal and child health, taking place on Wednesday the 22. It probably won’t draw the same amount of media attention as predicable rants by various global despots, but it holds more potential to change the lives of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world than any UN meeting in a long time.
The event will occur on the sidelines of the Millennium Development Goals summit and will focus on the two goals that, so far, have made the least progress toward their 2015 targets. These are Goal 4 (a two-thirds reduction in child mortality) and Goal 5 (a three quarters reduction in maternal mortality and universal access to family planning). Progress toward these goals have been particularly stunted in 49 of the least developed countries in the world, the majority of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The idea behind this event is to build new momentum toward achieving these goals. Specifically, it is intended to secure tangible commitments toward implementing a Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health which the Secretary General released two weeks ago.“We want developing countries to come to the table with policy commitments and donor countries will come to the table with financial commitments,” says UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant who met with a group of journalists to preview the event.
A communiqué that encapsulates policy and financial commitments will be released after the meeting. Expectations are already very high. A top UN official, Robert Orr ,told reporters, “There is going to be a huge amount of concrete agreements to fund that strategy.” Those funds will come mostly from donor countries, but also from philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and private corporations, including Johnson and Johnson, which announced a $200 million donation to the cause just yesterday.
In all, the Global Stragegy for Women’s and Children’s Health calls for an additional $26 billion of investments in women’s and children’s health spread across 49 countries to reach MDGs 4 and 5. That is obviously a great deal of money. But in human terms, the returns on this investment are potentially enormous. According to the UN report, more than 15 million deaths of children under five could be prevented; 33 million unwanted pregnancies could be avoided; and 740,000 women would be saved from dying from complications during child birth should these efforts be fully implemented. Furthermore, it has been widely documented that investments in women and girls can have society-wide multiplier-effects that help to lift whole communities out of poverty.
No one predicts that $26 billion of additional funding will suddenly materialize during the UN meeting. But most UN watchers do expect that convening this meeting will result in a big dent in the funding gap for women’s and children’s health. This, in the end, is the value of hosting this kind of summit—countries are much more focused on this issue than they would be absent the meeting, and there is “peer pressure” to bring tangible commitments to the table. Ultimately, though, the success of the MDG Summit ought to be measured by the quality of the commitments that are made.