THE BLOG
06/17/2010 11:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women Deliver 2010: A Second Chance for the World to Deliver for Women

The much-anticipated Women Deliver 2010 conference opened with a rousing call for global action for women's health. A star-studded line-up of health and development leaders committed themselves and urged others to do more to reduce child and maternal deaths. The rhetoric and passion sounds a lot like the calls we heard fifteen years ago that went unheeded. Today there is a second chance for the world to deliver for women. Will this time be different?

High-Level Policy Commitments of the Day

At the Women Deliver conference, Melinda Gates announced the Gates Foundation will dedicate $1.5 billion in additional funding over the next five years for maternal and child health and that she would make maternal and child health her personal priority as co-chair of the Gates Foundation. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the day's events with a simple explanation of his mission: "to help every women step into her shoes again after giving birth." And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concluded her video address with the reminder that "every day, women deliver for the world. It's time for the world to deliver for women."

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a managing director of the World Bank, pointed to the silver lining that accompanies efforts to reduce maternal deaths: we don't need to reinvent the wheel. "We know what interventions work," she said, but we need political leadership to ensure verbal commitments are translated into results. Okonjo-Iweala also stressed the fact that the responsibility ultimately lies in the hands of developing countries, emphasizing the need for developing country ministries to reallocate their own country budgets and align their own national priorities to ensure make tangible commitments are made towards improving the health of their own mothers.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director Thoraya Ahmed-Obaid, praised the growing political momentum around the subject of maternal and women's health. Among the events and commitments driving the maternal and child health agenda are the July 2010 African Union Summit in Kampala (the theme of which is "Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development in Africa"), the commitment to maternal health outlined in President Obama's Global Health Initiative, and the introduction of the UN's Joint Action Plan to accelerate progress towards maternal and child health announced by Secretary-General Ki-moon at the Women Deliver conference.

In more than a nod to Canada, Melinda Gates called the international commitment to uphold maternal and child health as the signature initiative of the upcoming G-8 "the most ambitious effort on behalf of women and children's health in history." She argued that we have to challenge the assumption that maternal death during childbirth is inevitable and acceptable. She pointed to Sri Lanka as an example of a country where government-led policies have lead to a drastic reduction in maternal deaths.

A Second Chance to Succeed

The renewed energy and level of commitment to maternal and child health is exhilarating, inspiring, and absolutely essential for the world to move forward and faster on reducing maternal and child deaths. Unfortunately, it's also all too familiar. Recall the commitments made to advance women's health in both Cairo and Beijing in 1994 and 1995. After 15 years, many countries have seen little or no reductions in their maternal mortality ratios, and progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5 has been the slowest of all the MDGs.

We need to translate these promises into concrete, measurable results. In a paper that my colleagues Miriam Temin, Ruth Levine and I prepared for Women Deliver called Why it's the Right Time: Moving on Reproductive Health Goals by Focusing on Adolescent Girls we state that, "we must give high priority to expanding evidence-based and promising approaches through action in health sectors, schools, communities and families." Last week, we praised Canada's pledge to commit $1 billion to maternal and child health, but also described our obligation to spend these resources carefully. This will require leveraging the power of incentives and implementing programs that move donors and developing countries alike towards a system of increased country responsibility. In addition, ensuring that resources are allocated effectively will require increased emphasis on results. CGD's proposed Cash on Delivery Aid -- or COD Aid -- is one such approach that would support program integration and allow national governments and other country stakeholders to determine how best to make progress on goals such as increased maternal and child survival.

At the conclusion of Monday's opening plenary, moderator and former CNN chief correspondent, Christianne Amanpour, asked each of the panelists -- all longtime champions of the basic rights of women -- "what keeps them going" in the face of setbacks? The answers were telling. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid wants every woman to have the same chances she had. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, her parents emphasized her education, so that she was able to overcome traditional cultural barriers and ascend to one of the highest UN positions. For Soren Pind, Minister for Development Cooperation of Denmark, the knowledge that our current actions will have an impact on the future of the rest of the world fuels his belief that he has the best job in the world. In a perfect illustration of the simultaneous hope and frustration that characterizes the issue of maternal mortality, Okonjo-Iweala explained that what drives her is the same issue that disheartens her: the knowledge that we currently possess the information necessary to eradicate the majority of maternal deaths, but the lack of resources and political will has prevented sustained, measurable improvements in maternal health in the world's poorest countries.

What will keep us going and make Women Deliver truly deliver is a strong commitment and follow through to achieve real results: a rapid and equitable decline in the number of mothers and newborns that die from preventable causes each day. What can we learn about countries that have succeeded in reducing their maternal mortality levels and applied interventions that effectively reached their poorest women? And how can we apply this learning to different settings? This is a second chance -- where high-level political momentum, technical knowledge and much-needed financial resources finally converge on a moral and economic imperative. Let's seize it.

This is a joint post with Katherine Douglas.