Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, November 18, 2014 4:14PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 18, 2014 6:09PM EST
OTTAWA — A Dutch princess lauded by the Harper government for her efforts to oppose the forced marriage of young girls is calling on Canada and its wealthy partner countries to boost overall aid spending.
Princess Mabel van Oranje of the Netherlands praised the government’s so-called child bride initiative, saying it has made Canada a world leader on an international development issue that has few champions.
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird bestowed the government’s John Diefenbaker human rights award on van Oranje’s organization, Girls Not Brides, an umbrella group of 400 non-governmental organizations operating in 60 countries.
Baird also announced another $10 million contribution to the initiative on top of a $20-million commitment earlier this year.
For her part, van Oranje was effusive in her praise of Baird’s initiative, calling it an example of “smart development” that will have maximum impact.
But in an interview with The Canadian Press, van Oranje said it is crucial for all countries to boost overall aid spending to the United Nations development spending target of 0.7 per cent of GDP.
Canada’s current spending level is below 0.3 per cent.
“I think it’s wise for rich countries to spend 0.7 per cent of their GDP on international development,” van Oranje said. “That’s a smart investment, and the amounts involved are not enormous.
Van Oranje said it was smart “to spend a bit of money. We’re talking about less than a per cent of all the wealth that we have, on development.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered the same message to Harper earlier this year in Toronto when he shared a podium with the prime minister after he had just made a five-year, $3.5-billion commitment to his child, maternal and newborn health initiative.
Ban praised Harper for taking leadership on an issue that is close to his own heart – the secretary general revealed at the conference that two of his own siblings died at birth.
But Ban also made the point that all rich countries, especially those of the G7, need to live up to the 0.7 per cent target because it would help reduce poverty more broadly.
For his part, Harper said Canada chooses to target its foreign aid spending at programs that produce measurable results.
Baird said Tuesday Canada and Zambia are to present a resolution at the UN General Assembly this week condemning forced child marriage, so it will be part of the debate when the world body creates a new set of international development goals.
“We think it’s important to get success at the United Nations with a resolution last year… and a beefed up resolution this year because we want in the post-2015 development goals this to be front and centre,” he said,
Van Oranje and two fellow members of her organization agreed Canada’s twin aid priorities are making a difference because they target young girls.
“If you’re working on maternal health issues and you know that an enormous amount of child mortality happens among adolescent girls, then trying to make sure these girls don’t marry so early is a good development investment,” said Amina Hanga, whose organization tries to help girls in northern Nigeria, where the terrorist group Boko Haram is actively trying to keep them out of school.
The Harper government has faced broad criticism from the likes of former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the respected British medical journal the Lancet for refusing to allow funding of abortion in child, maternal and newborn health projects.
That criticism was renewed again Tuesday during the release of a new report by the United Nations Population Fund that cited the economic obstacles faced by 1.8 billion young people in developing countries.
Sandeep Prasad, head of the group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, used the launch of the UN report to point out that the government spent only 1.3 per cent of its Muskoka Initiative funds on overseas family planning between 2010 and 2013.
Prasad said two million girls under age 15 give birth each year and 90 per cent of those occurred in early marriages.
“On this front, the Canadian government has fallen short of the mark,” Prasad said.