05/06/2013 05:12 EDT | Updated 07/06/2013 05:12 EDT

A Special Countdown to Save the World's Mothers

It's funny how the notion of time has always been inextricably linked to practices and notions about motherhood. A woman trying to become pregnant will chart optimal times of the month she is most likely to conceive. Women who feel they are getting on in their years and are anxious to have a first child will repeat that old phrase about a ticking biological clock. Every day, mothers around the world with busy schedules or demanding jobs and other important commitments try as hard as they can to make time for themselves and for their children.

Timing, it seems, is everything when it comes to motherhood.


Photo: Plan International

Today I am thinking of another kind of ticking clock that's taking place on the world stage. That clock is keeping time and also counting the millions of mothers and babies worldwide that we are trying to save from unnecessary and preventable deaths by 2015 and in decades following.

For me, that world clock began ticking here in Canada back in 2009 when Plan Canada joined forces with five other international development organizations to make saving the lives of women and children a major priority for the June 2010 G-8 Summit in Huntsville, Ontario.

With nearly 1,000 women in developing countries dying daily from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and too many of the world's children dying before their fifth birthday, we knew that maternal, newborn and child health (aka MNCH) was an issue for our time that needed global attention and action. So we voiced our strong concerns.

With the strong support of many Canadians who agreed this was an important issue, and with all-party support from the Canadian government, our nation did indeed make MNCH a key priority of the June 2010 G-8 and that leadership became known worldwide as Canada's. "With the strong support of many Canadians who agreed this was an important issue, and with all-party support from the Canadian government, our nation did indeed make MNCH a key priority of the June 2010 G-8 and that leadership became known worldwide as Canada's Muskoka Initiative.

When Canada stepped up and out on this issue, the world took notice and quickly followed suit. Together Canada and other nations committed in 2010 to $7.3 billion in new funding over five years for MNCH initiatives in developing countries. In fact, at the September 2010 United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, world leaders came together on a global action plan to address eight key goals by the year 2015 -- two of those goals are reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.

More and more countries signed on to make MNCH a priority in their country programming and health budgets. This included training for more skilled birth attendants; scaling up nutrition programs; building or refurbishing maternal health clinics; and ensuring more women and their children had access to basic procedures and medicines to address pregnancy or birth complications.

This global solidarity and commitment to action was important and felt good, but as development organizations, we wanted to put real rigour behind our efforts. For us it wasn't just about saving lives because it was the right thing to do. We wanted to hold global efforts accountable and demonstrate their value and effectiveness. So we also committed to documenting the progress, lessons learned, and outcomes that would result from these global commitments in order to inform future investments that would reach countries most in need, making the biggest impact.

Now in 2013, with just under 1,000 days to go to 2015, I can say we've definitely made progress on this issue.

4.4 million more lives have been saved in 2010 than in 1990.

More children are beating the odds and making it to the age of five. A 2011 annual report by the United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation indicates an estimated 6.9 million children died before their fifth birthday compared to 12 million in 1990.

More recently Plan Canada, with the support of Canadian donors and working together with our local country partners, refurbished more than 25 family health clinics in Bangladesh and also trained over 90 skilled birth attendants in that country. In Zimbabwe, we've brought MNCH training and education to over 900 village health workers, and in Tanzania we've provided MNCH training to nearly 5,000 community health workers.

There have been challenges for sure. Mali, one of Plan's largest MNCH program countries, faced a major military and political conflict last year leaving people on the run and communities in turmoil. This situation made it difficult for us to help mothers and children and to track consistent data. The reality of working in developing countries is that there are always going to be setbacks or local conditions that may impact our work, but because we have enough partners across Canada and across the world dedicated to this issue we have found resilience to withstand those challenges and disappointments.

This Mother's Day, Canadians can be satisfied in the knowledge that when we focus on something we can actually move real global targets. We can know that even while the clock counts down to 2015 the number of lives being saved is only going up.

Some may speak about Canada's limited foreign policy clout, but we have evidence that shows when we focus and come together we can have enormous heft in terms of changing the tilt on serious global challenges like women dying in childbirth or children dying before the age of five.

There's no more magic about 2015 than there's magic about a day in the year when we celebrate mothers. But it is a good time to pause and think about how we're doing on this major issue that we brought to the world in 2010, and ask ourselves how we can do more and do better -- even while celebrating how far we've come. It's always the right time to do the right thing -- and timing is everything when it comes to motherhood.