WASHINGTON The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $1.5 billion on Monday in a joint push with the United Nations to improve the health of women and children, while launching a lobbying effort to get governments and other non-profit groups on board.
The program aims to cut across the "silos" of health initiatives focused on one thing -- AIDS, for example, or nutrition -- and get broader initiatives into place.
"That is in addition to grants that we already make in vaccines, diarrhea, malaria," Melinda Gates told reporters.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would try to focus the Group of 20 meeting in Toronto later this month on the subject, adding the goal is to raise $15 billion.
"We may need an additional $45 billion by 2015," Ban said.
Ban and Gates described a comprehensive approach through 2014 to help women deliver babies safely and plan healthy families with access to contraception, while incorporating current vaccination and nutrition programs.
"The women and children are always last in line for health issues," Ban said. "It's just morally unacceptable ... This is a real human rights issue."
Ban said the United Nations would lean on developed nations and non-profits alike.
"We need all of the actors," he said. "Getting strong support from a foundation like Melinda and Bill Gates is a strong political tool for me."
Ban, in Washington for the international Women Deliver conference, said he hoped the United States would provide money and political push.
"I know the current economic situation is quite difficult. But the current economic situation should not give any excuse to pay less attention to this," he said.
Nor are poorer nations off the hook. Developing countries should devote at least 15 percent of their national budgets to health issues, Ban said.
"They can make policy changes that make an enormous difference to women and children," Gates said. "This is a government issue and it is going to take large-scale government funding to make it work."
She praised the Ethiopian government for opening 15,000 clinics, for instance, and hiring 30,000 visiting health workers.
The foundation, set up by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates with his wife Melinda, said it would provide initial grants of $94 million for work in India and $60 million for Ethiopia. Some of the first groups funded include the non-profit Save the Children and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
Gates cited recent statistics showing it is possible to make progress.
In April, Dr. Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that deaths of women in and around childbirth have gone down by an average of 35 percent globally.
And last month, the same group found that deaths among children under age 5 fell from 11.9 million in 1990 to 7.7 million in 2010.
World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said she hoped her institution could work with Gates on the program.
"The reason why I think this could work is this is one area where we do have solutions," she told Reuters at the conference. "We do know what works. Some of it has proven to be quite successful."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)