Economic Crisis Jeopardizes Global Health

Correction June 17, 2009

We said that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is announcing a $20 billion initiative to support women in developing countries whose health has been jeopardized by the global economic crisis. There is no new initiative. At the secretary-general’s June 15 forum on global health, Ban called on donors to honor existing commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, pledges that amount to $20 billion between 2007 and 2015.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announces Monday a $20 billion initiative to support women and children in developing countries whose health has been jeopardized by the global economic crisis. President Obama already has stepped up with a call for an increase in maternal and child health funding to half a billion dollars.

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[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We said that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is announcing a $20 billion initiative to support women in developing countries whose health has been jeopardized by the global economic crisis. There is no new initiative. At the secretary-general's June 15 forum on global health, Ban called on donors to honor existing commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, pledges that amount to $20 billion between 2007 and 2015.]

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commercials used to say you could help a child in the developing world for less than the price of a cup of coffee. The latest effort to help women and children requires a different comparison. The United Nations hopes to help mothers and infants around the world for less than the bailout of a single bank. Today, the U.N. Secretary-General announces a $20 billion initiative. NPR's Brenda Wilson explains why it's needed now.

BRENDA WILSON: Women and children are the first to lose in low-income countries in these tough times, and they don't have far to fall. Nine million children die in their first year of life, and about half a million women die in childbirth each year. Norway's UN Ambassador Morten Wetland says that doesn't have to happen.

Ambassador MORTEN WETLAND (Norway's UN Ambassador): Most of them, because they give birth in places where they are unsafe and unclean, and they're not in the care of trained health workers or in health facilities.

WILSON: And Norway knows when many Western countries signed on to fight AIDS, Norway targeted maternal and child health with programs like this one in India.

Ambassador WETLAND: It would actually pay the mothers cash-on-hand for coming to a clinic to give birth there. It's not much. It's in the order of $15, $20, but it matters so much for these mothers because they can stand up against those who are more traditional in their village or in their family who believe that they should do it the way they always have done that.

WILSON: That led to a sharp decline in maternal deaths in the program. Now the UN is adopting Norway's ideas. Wetland says UN country representatives are excited because the U.S. will be playing a key role. Nils Daulaire, a senior fellow at the Global Health Council, says U.S. funding was flat under the Bush administration because of its opposition to family planning.

Dr. NILS DAULAIRE (Senior Fellow, Global Health Council): Any effective program to deal with maternal deaths also has to look realistically at the access that these women have to safe, voluntary contraception. Fortunately, none of this new administration seems to be much more open to a frank conversation about the realities of life among women around the world.

WILSON: But there's a catch. Ambassador Wetland says to be eligible to get the money, a country's health budget can't fall below four percent.

Ambassador WETLAND: This is an area where countries cannot really afford to stop and go in their policies. You may, for example, postpone building a bridge for a year or so, and that is important, but the costs of volatility in the field of health is extremely high.

WILSON: The initiative targets 49 countries with the highest rates of maternal and child mortality.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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