OTTAWA — One polarizing question will hover over the prime minister Wednesday when he opens his international conference on helping dying kids and mothers in poor countries: does Stephen Harper truly care, or is it just another cynical political ploy?
The answer, which depends on which side of a very deep divide it is asked, is either a passionate yes or no.
On one side lives a core of disillusioned aid workers, diplomats and public servants who see Canada’s declining foreign aid spending and the dissolution of the government’s development agency as evidence of Harper’s hypocrisy towards helping the world’s most vulnerable.
Opposite are those who sincerely thank the prime minister for focusing the world’s attention on reducing the millions of needless deaths of pregnant women, newborns and young children in the developing world each year.
Harper’s high-profile supporters will include the philanthropist Melinda Gates, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Aga Khan and Queen Rania of Jordan, who will join him in Toronto for the opening of the three-day summit dubbed, “Saving Every Woman, Every Child.”
Joel Spicer, head of the Canadian aid agency Micronutrient Initiative, was one of a dozen people to meet privately with the prime minister last month after he announced the summit, an attempt to refocus attention on the aid priority he unveiled when he hosted G8 leaders in 2010.
Spicer and others in the room used the opportunity to carefully take the measure of the man behind the $2.8-billion Muskoka Initiative.
“What struck me — because I was really looking for it — is that he’s actually sincere; he’s personally committed to it,” Spicer recalled Tuesday.
“He was saying, ‘I deal with so many issues on a daily basis and this is one of the ones I actually think is important.'”
Many in the room had a vested interest in believing in Harper’s apparent altruism. Spicer’s organization got $75 million over five years in 2010 to improve the nutrition of pregnant women and young children.
“People around the table were asking, ‘What’s in it?’ There was some discussion about to what extent was this opportunistic. It was very clear he was personally committed, that he felt a sense of injustice.”
Spicer’s career in international development has spanned the United Nations and the World Bank, from West Africa and South Asia to Washington and Geneva. He says it is rare for a world leader to make a commitment on a development issue and follow it through years later.
“The fact of the matter is: this is not something that would win an election.”
But many others see Harper as nothing more than a callous opportunist who is latching on to what is literally a motherhood issue to bolster his domestic support and soften his public image as a man with a hard, unfeeling exterior.
That view is embodied by the Ottawa-based McLeod Group, a collection of academics, former diplomats, government and development hands who are deeply embittered by Canadian foreign policy under Harper.
“Once again Canada’s development co-operation policies are being driven by domestic interests, not the development outcomes and the results the government claims to be seeking,” the group said Tuesday in the latest in a series of blog posts criticizing Harper’s initiative, titled, “Delusions about international leadership.”
It accused Canada of grandstanding and pretending to lead on an issue that has been on the international radar for two decades.
The group again blasted the Harper government for not funding abortion-related projects in order to appease its domestic political base.
It reiterated former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public criticism of that stance during previous visit to Canada, when she said: “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, which includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.”
The government has carefully vetted this week’s agenda to avoid “the gaping Canadian policy flaws around providing safe abortion or basic contraceptive services” and other controversy, the post said.
Harper deserves credit for giving momentum to a worthy effort to save the lives of vulnerable children and mothers, said Alan Whiteside, head of global health policy for the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Waterloo, Ontario.
“But I find it quite troubling that at the same time as you have the maternal and child health initiative, we have a government that shuts down the Canadian International Development Agency,” Whiteside said, referring to the agency’s recent merger into the Foreign Affairs department.
“It could be a form of political gamesmanship.”
Also troubling, he added, is the government’s decision to freeze aid spending, which has plunged to less than 0.3 per cent of GDP, well below the international goal of 0.7 per cent.
“A number of countries have done it, the British most recently,” Whiteside said. “So I think it’s really quite a searing indictment that Canada has frozen it.”