11/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Smart Global Investment: Save a Mother's Life

You wouldn't expect a plenary session at the Clinton Global Initiative called "Moving From Crisis to Opportunity - Financing an Equitable Future," featuring the CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., to be the natural venue for launching a major initiative on maternal health.

But that's exactly what happened Friday morning in New York, when former President Bill Clinton unveiled a new program and CGI Commitment to Action called Young Champions for Maternal Health.

A partnership between the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth (the organization I lead) and Ashoka, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship, Young Champions is the first international fellowship program to focus exclusively on maternal health. The strategy: Build the next generation of passionate and committed innovators in this field by offering a nine-month work study that will conclude with each fellow designing a concrete solution to improve maternal health. EngenderHealth and Ashoka will jointly promote these solutions to the broader global health community.

As a 25-year veteran in the health field, I couldn't have been more gratified to see this innovative program take the stage, literally, at a major forum on the world's financial systems. It validated what those of us on the front lines of global health know to be true: To truly move beyond financial crises and do so in a sustainable and equitable way, we must invest in the health and well-being of mothers, particularly in the developing world.

That's because women contribute profoundly to the economic engine of their communities. In rural Africa, for example, women grow 80 percent of the volume of food and are responsible for marketing 60 percent of it. What's more, when a woman has access to health care, can deliver her babies safely and is able to plan her pregnancies, her family's income is more likely to stabilize, and her children are more likely to go to school and raise their standard of living.

Yet halfway to the 2015 deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals against global poverty and hunger, progress on Goal #5, Improving Maternal Health, is stagnating.

It's not as though attention and resources haven't been directed to this problem. But the fact that the rate of maternal deaths has not measurably dropped since the safe motherhood movement was launched in the mid-1980s signals that we are ready for fresh energy and thinking.

In short, we need to be cultivating the next generation of leaders.

On the one hand, we know exactly what it takes to save women's lives: better access to high-quality medical care and family planning, and more qualified health professionals on the ground, particularly in rural areas in Africa, to provide these services. We also know it's first and foremost a lack of political will that stands in the way of progress.

On the other hand, even though we know what works, there is always room for improvement and for finding new solutions to problems that should have been solved long ago. That's the promise of Young Champions, and why so many of us in the field are excited to see it bear fruit.

What will success look like? One important measure will be changing these shameful facts: Every minute of every day, a woman dies due to pregnancy or childbirth, and 99 percent of these deaths take place in developing countries. For every woman who dies, countless others are left with entirely preventable birth injuries, such as fistulas, that may shape the rest of their lives.

When President Clinton started CGI in 2005, it was to "turn good intentions into real actions and results." Today, as I stood in that windowless ballroom in midtown Manhattan, I was overcome with a palpable sense of hope that we are taking action--and moving one more step closer to closing the gap between who lives and who dies from pregnancy and childbirth.