Melinda Gates is on stage at the Women Deliver conference now pledging $500,000 a year to the cause of family planning, maternal health and women’s education on behalf of the Gates Foundation. “It is not that the world doesn’t know how to save the 350,000 mothers and 3 million newborns who die every year,” she’s saying, “It is that we haven’t tried hard enough.”
I’ve always been a little sceptical of the Gates Foundation – even though it blends my favourite themes of technology and international development. Anything of that size, even a charitable fund, scares me a little, but the part of her speech highlighting successes in Malawi and Sri Lanka were quite inspiring. Last week I was invited up to Marie Stopes‘ London HQ to talk about maternal health issues in the developing world and how to get media coverage of them. The latter part remains as difficult as ever, if my inability to get commissioned off the back of the conference is any indicator, but there’s been a lot of progress on the former. A Lancet study last month reckoned that the global maternal mortality rate had declined from 422 per 100,000 live births in 1980 to 251 per 100,000 live births in 2008.
As Prof Jimmy Whitworth of the Wellcome Trust told us, these statistics are probably innacurate, but they’re all we’ve got. While it’s generally good news amd there are lots of success stories like the ones Gates highlighted, only 23 nations are on track to achieve the MDG goal of reducing maternal mortality rate by 75% by 2015. In Afghanistan, for example, Marie Stopes’ country director Farhad Javid – a man who’s incredible story I hope to tell elsewhere soon – the MMR hasn’t changed since the fall of the Taliban, where it remains almost 1600 deaths per 100,000 births.
Gates’ contribution and speech are clearly to be welcomed, with some strong words about contraception and family planning, and an especially strong piece on feedback mechanisms and accountability.The issue of whether or not international aid should fund safe abortion (an area that Canada is now holding the G8 up with, not, as you might imagine, the US) was carefully avoided.