By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jun 26, 2010 - The G8 bloc of wealthy nations promised five billion dollars Saturday for health and nutrition programmes that benefit women and children in developing countries.

The five-year Muskoka initiative announced at the annual G8 meeting, this year outside of Toronto, is intended to help prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and babies who currently die during childbirth each year. Nearly eight million children, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, die before they reach the age of five.

Flavia Bustreo, director of the Geneva-based Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which represents more than 300 global and national organisations, welcomed the world's richest countries' focus on maternal and child health, which is a historical first, she said.

However, she told IPS from Geneva, "The glass is half-full when it comes to their financial commitment."

Oxfam and other NGOs also charge that G8 donor nations have been playing a shell game - making multi-billion-dollar commitments at such meetings but without increasing their overall spending on overseas development aid.

"No maple leaf is big enough to hide the shame of Canada's summit of broken promises," said Mark Fried, spokesperson for Oxfam.

Activists say the G8's "fair share" is at least four billion dollars a year, or 20 billion of the additional 30 billion dollars needed through 2015 to meet the Millennium Development Goals of a 75-percent cut in deaths of women related to childbirth and a two-thirds reduction in deaths of children younger than five by 2015, compared with 1990.

That 30 billion dollars would save the lives of an estimated one million women and 11 million children under five, and prevent 1.5 million stillbirths, the United Nations and the Partnership have calculated.

Canada, as host of the combined G8 and G20 summits, has made much of its commitment to maternal and child health, offering to contribute 1.1 billion dollars over five years.

"I am very pleased to announce Canada's contribution to this critical initiative," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement.

Critics point out that Canada's new five-year contribution to saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children is less than the overall cost of hosting the back- to-back summits over three days. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent fixing up and "securing" a remote area north of Toronto for the day and half G8 summit, that also happens to be the riding of Canada's Industry Minister Tony Clement.

The larger G20 summit is being held in Toronto Saturday and Sunday. More than 20,000 security personnel are involved including the Canadian military. The security costs, which include 5.5 million dollars for a security fence, have outraged the Canadian public. Last year's G20 Summit in London, England reportedly spent 30 million dollars on security.

The G20 includes the "world's most industrialised nations" (which also comprise the G8): Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States.

Its other members are Australia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, plus the 27- member European Union.

Although Canada did pledge 1.1 billion dollars of new money, it is less than the 1.2 billion being spent for three days of security at the G8 and G20 summits, said Robert Fox of Oxfam Canada. Moreover, other G8 leaders failed to give more because Canada is freezing its aid spending next year to bring down the deficit.

"We had hoped to see much more coming from the countries of the G8. It's a disappointment," said David Morley, president of Save the Children Canada.

There are also charges the Harper government is imposing its religious views on the rest of the world by stating that none of its money can be used to support abortion or abortion services irrespective of a county's laws.

Abortion is legal in Canada. Each G8 country chooses where and who gets its funding and under what conditions, Bustreo said, noting that the G8 documents do not make any specific references to abortion.

"This year the headline is maternal health, last year it was food. With overall aid frozen, the G8 are just shuffling the same money around to different pots," said Oxfam's Fried said in a statement.

At the last G8 Summit, donors pledged 22 billion dollars over three years to support agriculture in developing countries, but Oxfam calculates that at most 6.0 billion dollars of this is new money.

"The only promise that counts is the Gleneagles one to increase aid by 50 billion dollars by 2010 and that is the one they have abandoned today," said Fried.

The main focus of the G8 meeting has been on economics and deficit reduction, with Harper calling on G8 and G20 countries to pledge to cut their deficits in half by 2013.

"After the scandal of the G8's broken promises, the G20 now has the chance to stand up and deliver for the world's poor," said actor and Oxfam Global Ambassador Bill Nighy in Toronto.

"A Robin Hood Tax on banks is a simple but brilliant idea to raise hundreds of billions of dollars to help millions of poor people who have been hit hardest by global economic downturn, hunger and climate change," said Nighy.