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The Globe and Mail
Campbell Clark
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Stephen Harper is highlighting the healthcare plight of mothers and infants in the developing world as a means of transforming the role of the G8 club of wealthy countries.


Insisting the group should focus on development and international security issues now that the G20 has usurped its role as an economic forum, the Prime Minister is hoping maternal and child health will become Canada's "signature" focus at the G8 meeting, underlining his government's hope the group can find a lasting raison-d'ĂȘtre.


"Members of the G8 can make a tangible difference in maternal and child health and Canada will be making this the top priority in June," Mr. Harper said in a statement. "Far too many lives and unexplored futures have already been lost for want of relatively simple health care solutions."


Mr. Harper departed last night for Davos, Switzerland, where he will outline his agenda as host of the Group of Eight and Group of 20 summits in a speech to the World Economic Forum.


It will be the first time both summits are held in quick succession - the G8 in Muskoka, Ont., and the G20 in Toronto in the period of June 25-27 - and Mr. Harper is seeking to put a distinctly Canadian stamp on the gathering.


Restoring influence and relevance to the G8 is a complex mission, particularly with the rise of the G20 as the world's pre-eminent economic forum.


The government is keen to see the smaller G8 survive, because it places Canada in regular close consultations with the leaders of the United States, Japan and major European nations. But others, including a U.S. White House fatigued by too many summits, would be willing to let it die.


The 2008 global financial crisis sparked meetings of the bigger G20, which includes the G8 nations plus developing economies like China and India, and last September, it took over as the world's economic summit from the G8.


Mr. Harper's aides told reporters yesterday that in Davos tomorrow, the Prime Minister will outline a new G8 role that includes security issues - such as a U.S. push for nuclear arms reductions, or terrorism threats emerging from Yemen - but also development issues such as rebuilding Haiti.


"Going forward, I believe the smaller, but still influential, G8 will focus on security concerns and human welfare. It is incumbent upon the leaders of the world's most developed economies to assist those in the most vulnerable positions," Mr. Harper said in a statement.


A G8 role in development and aid might raise tensions with developing powers that feel these issues belong to the more inclusive G20, said summit expert Andrew Cooper, associate director of the Kitchener-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.


Before future hosts can expand the G20 to non-economic issues, Mr. Harper is trying to define the G8 as a group of wealthy democracies with similar views on global security issues that are also the world's major aid donors, he said.


"In some ways it's sort of a race against time," Mr. Cooper said.


Maternal and child health are topics new to the Prime Minister's agenda, but provide a link to the G8's past development promises. At the 2005 G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., the wealthy nations promised to double aid to poorer countries, notably in Africa, and a report on progress is due at the June summit. Mr. Harper is also expected to use his Davos speech to underline the need for G20 countries to move ahead with financial reforms.


Canadian officials said they fear momentum for revamping regulations around the world has been lost now that more than a year has passed since the financial crisis and major players are taking separate directions for reform.