TORONTO -- The Conservative government is pledging an additional $3.5 billion over five years towards the prime minister's maternal, newborn and child health initiative.

Stephen Harper is making the announcement about the funds, which will cover the period from 2015 to 2020, at a Toronto-area primary school.

The commitment is slightly higher than the $3.25 billion that a coalition of aid groups had been asking for.

The money builds on the $2.8 billion Harper committed to his so-called Muskoka Initiative, unveiled in 2010 when Canada hosted the G8 summit.

Harper has made helping young mothers and newborns in developing countries his signature aid priority.

Harper says the new funds will be focused on helping young children in the first month of life who are dying around the world in numbers that experts describe as alarming.

The prime minister is hosting an international summit on the issue this week in Toronto with experts from around the world, including philanthropist Melinda Gates, who gave the keynote speech today at the summit's first full day.

"We need to finish what we started and sustain global momentum to 2015 and beyond," Harper said in a statement.

"This is a moral imperative to saving the lives of vulnerable women and children in some of the poorest countries around the world when it is in our power to do so."

In her speech earlier Thursday, Gates lauded Harper for his "powerful advocacy on behalf of people in developing countries."

"Under your leadership, and with the support of many people in this room, Canada has earned a global reputation for driving the agenda when it comes to women and children," she said.

"The Muskoka Initiative rallied the entire world around saving mothers and their babies."

Gates also credited International Development Minister Christian Paradis with strengthening Canada's relationship with non-governmental organizations.

The comment appeared to be aimed at Harper's critics who say he is using the most basic motherhood issue to boost domestic support.

She says Canada deserves credit for funding organizations that have tried to eradicate polio AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Earlier today, Queen Rania of Jordan denounced the deaths of millions of mothers and newborns every year.

And the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, also praised Harper for leadership on the issue, but said much more needs to be done.