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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5480

Senator PRATT (7:20 PM) —This evening I rise to speak on the importance of Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5, particularly in the face of the current global economic downturn. These goals enshrine our commitment to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health in the developing world. Indeed, the effects of the downturn are far more pronounced in the developing world than in developed countries.

The downturn we are experiencing is having a severe human cost—a cost that is being borne disproportionately by poor women and children. The World Bank has highlighted the gender-specific impacts of the current downturn. It estimates that, if the current crisis were to persist, there would be between 200,000 and 400,000 additional infant deaths per year in the 2009 to 2015 period. This represents up to 2.8 million additional infant deaths over these years.

Negative financial shocks are indeed more harmful to girls than boys. In developing nations, a one or more unit fall in GDP is estimated to increase infant mortality by 7.4 deaths per 1,000 for girls compared to an increase of 1.5 deaths per 1,000 for boys. In response to reduced survival rates for children, the birthrate often increases, and it is women who are exposed to pregnancy related risks as a result. Similarly, girls in poor countries with low rates of female schooling are highly vulnerable to being pulled out of school when average household incomes decline. Reductions in women’s incomes in developing countries are problematic, as women have a preference to invest scarce resources in child wellbeing.

We know that women’s income in developing countries will be reduced as a result of the global downturn that we are experiencing. There are losses in employment in export related industries, as well as a tightening in microfinance lending, which supports many small businesses run by women. The gender dimension must be recognised in any effective response to the global downturn. Women’s empowerment and their economic agency are critical to a meaningful recovery. As the Director for Gender and Development, World Bank, Mayra Buvinic said:

It is important to protect women in this crisis as they will be among the worst affected. But let us not look at women only as victims. Women can be agents of change. Considering them as full economic actors and investing in them is a smart way to help rebuild the economies of the world.

The Managing Director of the World Bank has urged developing countries to target women’s economic empowerment in stimulus packages. The thing is, such targeting can help ensure healthier growth in the future that reduces poverty more quickly for everybody. It is also equally important that developed nations do not use the current economic downturn as a reason to renege on their overseas aid commitments. Having met with the Burma Relief Centre and the Dalit Freedom Network today, it is very clear that the global financial crisis has resulted in difficulties for NGOs raising aid and a credit crunch that is affecting microcredit schemes. This must be addressed.

However, I am pleased that the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals remains undiminished in the face of the current economic crisis. The Rudd government is making good on our commitment to increase our official development assistance to 0.5 per cent of our gross national income by 2015. This budget saw us reach a spending level on development assistance of 0.34 per cent of GNI. That means we are on track to reach our 0.5 per cent target by 2015. I am pleased that the Rudd government has recognised that to meet the Millennium Development Goals we have to assist countries in our region to make faster progress on child mortality and maternal health. Progress in these very critical areas has been far too slow, and particularly slow in the Pacific. That is why the Rudd government has focused on developing a new framework for delivering official development assistance in the Pacific. This framework embodies a long-term joint commitment to achieving better outcomes on the Millennium Development Goals. Australia has since signed new partnership agreements for development with a number of Pacific countries, including the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. These partnerships recognise that constraints in health workforce capacity must be addressed if the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved.

Yesterday, I was very pleased to meet representatives from World Vision Australia. They discussed with me their experience of what works and what does not work when it comes to reducing child deaths and improving maternal health in the Pacific. Their experience confirms that training, deployment and support of appropriately qualified community health workers and, most especially midwives, is absolutely critical. World Vision Australia recently produced a report on their experiences in the Solomon Islands and PNG. I urge senators to look at it. This report is a very timely reminder that, while these problems may seem intractable and progress has been very slow, change is possible. We have to remember that in Asia, where the largest reductions in poverty have been achieved, 30 to 50 per cent of economic growth has been attributed to favourable demographic and health changes. That is a powerful argument for devoting a substantial portion of our development assistance to health priorities, especially maternal health and family planning. By working in partnership with developing nations, we are able to make a real difference.

In the Solomon Islands, for example, the maternal mortality rate has dropped quite dramatically since 2000: from 550 down to 140 per 100,000 births. This fall in maternal deaths has coincided with the increased deployment of midwives. Most of these midwives were trained through the Solomon Islands Diploma in Midwifery, which includes a very substantial component of practical training under the supervision of clinical educators. This diploma was only established in 2001 and it is already making a real difference. It demonstrates that it really is possible to produce significant numbers of skilled midwives quickly.

Contrast this with PNG, another Melanesian country with the same GDP per capita and the same population growth rate as the Solomon Islands. In PNG the maternal mortality rate stands at 733 per 100,000, and there is evidence to indicate that it has actually gone up over the past 10 years. That rate is the second highest in the Asia-Pacific and is second only to Afghanistan. That rate is five times as high as the rate in the Solomon Islands. That is, five times as many women die—many of them mothers; all of them of critical importance to their communities. The experience in the Solomon Islands strongly suggests that there is nothing inevitable about these deaths. The vast majority of these women do not need to suffer and die, leaving their partners, siblings, parents and children bereaved and bereft of their support. The maternal mortality rate in PNG is, quite frankly, a disgrace. Progress in the critical areas of maternal health is essential to the welfare of poor families and the empowerment of women. We must make a difference in these areas.

In closing, it is of vital important that our aid is targeted at women, their economic independence and their health. Without this commitment, we will not only continue to deprive women and children—sometimes of their lives—but fail to reach overall economic and social development goals.