Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Canadian Idol

Stephen Lewis is Canada’s conscience and, for those who hear him speak, a source of hope

Stephen Lewis skips the stairs and takes one giant step up to the stage, placing himself behind the podium to face the Montreal audience. He is polished and tidy in a sleek blue double-breasted suit with a crisp white shirt and dark red tie. He sends out a welcoming smile that seems to put himself and the rest of us at ease.

The lines of his face and thinning grey hair betray the harsher realities that the former Canadian ambassador to the UN, once-deputy executive director of UNICEF and current UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has known. Yet his eyes also betray an unrelenting optimism, a twinkling from behind the large wire-rimmed glasses. Considering Time magazine named him one of the world’s one hundred most influential people, he looks surprisingly “real.” He is gracious in the face of a prediction from the man introducing him that his lecture will merit a standing-ovation, and he diffuses the compliment by making himself the butt of a joke. But once he begins to speak, it’s clear that Lewis won’t be pulling any punches tonight.

This evening’s lecture is on education, one of the UN Millennium Development Goals examined in Lewis’s five-part CBC Massey Lecture series, “Race Against Time.” With an air of disbelief, Lewis begins his talk musing about the failure of universal primary education. Considered a human right by the international community since 1934, universal education has since been restated as a primary component of the Millennium Development Goals and other international declarations. “How then is it possible” Lewis asks “that the burden of school fees in Africa bedevils school attendance to this day?”

How is much of what is happening in Africa possible? We’ve all been exposed to the numbers—we know AIDS is hitting Africa hard and will hit the continent harder than any pandemic in human history before a cure can be found. It is estimated that 90 million Africans will be infected with HIV by 2025, creating a minimum of 18 million orphans. The numbers are astounding, the projections are morose and no clear answer seems in sight. Every possible avenue for aid and regeneration appears to be plagued by infrastructural shortcomings, economic and political dilemmas and a lack of faith in the integrity of the governments and organizations involved.

The UN, the IMF, the World Bank and the G8 countries have in turn taken lumps for corruption, mismanagement and misplaced priorities with respect to aid to Africa, creating a level of apathy that has rendered us disappointed and disillusioned, unsurprised by unfulfilled promises and unwilling to pressure for further action.

Seizing on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals—an ambitious series of targets ranging from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015—Lewis challenges whether these goals can be met; not because they are too ambitious or unrealistic but because UNICEF is unfocussed, the World Bank and IMF are still stuck on macroeconomics and G8 countries are insufficiently generous with their money and respect.

Despite these criticisms, Lewis continues to view UNICEF, the UN, the G8, the World Bank and the IMF as our best hope of achieving the Millennium Goals in Africa. Accepting the possibility for mistakes and mismanagement within multilateral organizations and democratic governments, Lewis is trying to convince us not to give up on the system. It’s an uphill battle. The need for progressive solutions to the problems that compromise aid is dire, Lewis reminds us.

He attacks the “Education for All - Fast Track Initiative” (FTI)—a plan meant to provide education funding—for falling into the same destructive patterns that IMF and World Bank initiatives have followed in the past. “It’s the latest form of neo-colonial chic … It divides countries into supplicants and benefactors on the flawed assumption that somehow the benefactors care about education,” Lewis says. “If they did, we wouldn’t be in this jackpot.” His anger is palpable.

Lewis is unable to understand the motives of wealthy governments; he is baffled that we spend many times more to improve our chances in war than we do to improve the human condition. He is unable to believe Prime Minister Paul Martin, with whom he has spoken directly, when he claims that “financial incapacity” prevents Canada from increasing foreign aid.

Lewis wraps up his lecture by highlighting the significance of education to Africa’s orphan children and laments the “hundreds of thousands of creative, gifted, often brilliant spirits” that will be lost if we continue to ignore Africa’s needs. Reminding the audience of the world’s loss between 1933 and 1945, Lewis concludes, “the Holocaust fractured a large piece of civilization. This is a different, but analogous, holocaust.” Audience members rise to their feet to applaud, as predicted.

A stimulating question-and-answer period follows, during which one audience member asks a question that is surely at the fore of everyone’s mind: “What has Canada done in the face of this challenge … and what can we do to fix it?”

Lewis answers the question tactfully, joking about the assumption it contains and our shared tendency to view governments critically, before detailing innovative Canadian approaches to the problem and areas where Canada continues to fall short.

Canada was the first country to introduce generic drug legislation, Lewis points out, permitting drug manufacturers to make generic versions of patented drugs for export to poorer countries to fight epidemics like AIDS/HIV and malaria. We also played a key role in the creation of the Global Fund and we continue to fund the program generously, as well as the World Health Organization’s “3 by 5” initiative, which aims to provide antiretroviral drugs to 3 million HIV-infected Africans by 2005. Canada donated $100 million to this program last year.

However, all of these accomplishments are overshadowed by Canada’s foreign-aid failures, he notes. In 1970, twenty-two of the world’s nations agreed that 0.7 percent of gross national product was an appropriate level of foreign aid for all industrialized nations to invest. This target was proposed by then-Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson; Lewis has claimed elsewhere that to achieve this level of commitment from the world’s nations would “result in the virtual eradication of poverty by 2015."

Not only has Canada never come close to meeting this target, but the government continually refuses to outline a timetable for reaching it, despite repeated appeals by international figures championing the cause of foreign aid. Lewis is baffled. This failure is seen as “the height of hypocrisy” in international circles and is wholly inexplicable. Canada, he reminds us, “is the only G8 country with successive and continuing budgetary surpluses” and has been deemed “best placed to adopt and implement an ambitious target” according to a survey by the United Nations Development Program. “History,” he warns, “will not judge our government kindly.”

In response to the second part of the question—what can we do about Canada’s foreign aid failure—Lewis suggests that the people are at their strongest when the government is at its weakest; that the fragile minority status of the Martin government and a pending election make us uniquely poised to bend the government’s ear to our will. He endorses letter-writing campaigns, petitions and pressure of all sorts. Showing officials that increased foreign aid is a major concern of the public is tantamount to forcing that change, Lewis argues. Governments have no choice but to be flexible under minority conditions.

Listening to Stephen Lewis speak is inspiring and enlightening. He takes a world of mixed motives, historical injustices and moral quandaries and creates a clear and principled message. Nothing can justify the preventable destruction of Africa by HIV/AIDS. In the days after the lecture, I decided to write a letter to Paul Martin stating that Canada’s continued failures in foreign aid, in light of HIV/AIDS in Africa, are the height of ignorance and irresponsibility. I stressed that Canada’s actions are facilitating international race and class oppression, commoditizing human lives and violating human rights. After e-mailing my letter to Martin, I forwarded it to friends, requesting they sign it and send it to Martin as well before passing it on to others. I applied to volunteer at AIDS Community Care Montreal. I am trying not to give up.

For more information on HIV/AIDS in Africa or to make a donation, visit the Stephen Lewis Foundation website. Click here to send a pre-drafted letter to Paul Martin encouraging him to meet the 0.7 percent GNP target. Click here for Paul Martin’s contact information.

Rachel Harvey is an editorial intern at Maisonneuve magazine.