Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The final day: beware of false promises

Day 3 of the MDG summit is about to begin, with the three big things coming up. First is a leaders meeting on water and sanitation this morning – more on that later in the day. Second is the launch of the UN Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health, and finally there is President Obama’s speech. It’s a day when we’ll see a blizzard of various announcements and maybe even some $ signs, but it might be wise to hold the excitement for now...

The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health is one of the most significant and high-profile initiatives of the Summit. It seeks to bring all actors together to invest more, and better, in preventing the deaths of the 8 million children who die every year from preventable causes, and the 350,000 mothers who die needlessly in childbirth.

It’s a much-needed Strategy, but (and for some reason there is always a ‘but’ when it comes to these things) there is a real risk that it remains just that – a strategy without a plan, or a plan without any action.

The Global Strategy is right both in pushing the issue of women's and children’s health higher up the political agenda. And it is smart in the way that it approaches health comprehensively, to include oft-forgotten elements like good nutrition, clean water and basic sanitation as key ways to stop women and children getting sick in the first place. This is the message we’ve been pushing all year, so it’s good to see it picked up. If realised, it could really make a difference.

But it will require countries to step up and deliver it – the Strategy admits there will be $26 billion funding gap in 2011 to meet the health MDG targets in the poorest 49 countries. Unless that is closed, including extra funding for sanitation and water, the Strategy may be near meaningless.

There may be funding announced later, but we’ll have to wait and see if it is genuine and new.

One cautionary tale I picked up from an event I attended yesterday was this. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin launched an encouraging new strategy on tackling malnutrition in the ‘1000 days’ from conception to a child’s second birthday. Support for the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition Framework’ is hugely welcome, and could help to promote a broad approach to tackling undernutrition that includes elements like water and sanitation (diarrhoea is responsible for 50% of deaths from malnutrition).

But (again...) of course nutrition isn’t free, and the only financial promise I could detect was that Ireland was to increase the percentage of its aid budget devoted to tackling malnutrition from 6% to 20%. Cue applause in the room. I even caught myself clapping, then wondered why my hands were involuntarily hitting each other. Ireland has cut its overall aid budget this year by 25%. Increasing focus on one area while cutting the overall budget must mean they are slashing support for other items. In my own personal view, I’m not sure doing more to prevent children dying from malnutrition at the expense of doing less to prevent them dying from other things should necessarily be worthy of our applause.

More to come this evening on the day’s announcements, and on the water and sanitation event. Maybe there will be big surprises, and I really hope I'm needlessly being a cynic, but just beware of false promises – people’s livelihoods rely on them.

Read all yesterday’s official speeches here

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