Stephen Lewis, Oprah, Slavery + AIDS

I spoke with Stephen Lewis on Sunday morning about Afrika, AIDS, Western arrogance and Oprah Winfrey. You can hear my conversation with him on The Terrordome (check the link on the left) Wednesday at 6 PM Mountain Time on CJSR FM88 and/or You can also read the text version below.

He'll be speaking in E-Town this Monday at noon for free. For info, check here. You can check out the Stephen Lewis Foundation here.

Footnote links on Wednesday's Terrordome:

Sudanese Slavery Hoax? (scroll down and check on the right).

On Live 8:

Bob Geldof Praises George Bush
Live 8 Short on Africans

Live 8 Charity Gigs Not African Enough For Critics
The G8, Live 8, and Africa: Taking Hypocrisy to New Levels
What rocks is capitalism... yeah, yeah, yeah

Talking with Stephen Lewis

If international human rights work were George Lucas’s Star Wars, then Stephen Lewis would probably be Obi-Wan Kenobi, a warrior envisaging a better world while witnessing the one he’s in collapsing, a warrior who’s spent decades peering inside misery and shadows on errands of mercy, then bestriding the halls of power to confront those who claim to speak in the name of justice while they are working for its very opposite. The rights of children and the dispossessed are Stephen Lewis’s gods; the injustice of enforced poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatens to exterminate the peoples of the Afrikan continent are his demons.

But unlike those of the fictional Ben Kenobi, Lewis’s battles have never been pre-determined nor made elegant and photogenic courtesy of Hollywood CGI, and the victories have been far less frequent or certain. Because as the 69 year-old Lewis demonstrates painfully in Race Against Time (Anansi; $18.95), the book version of his 2005 Massey Lectures, victories for Afrika are rare when greed, myopia, bureaucratic egotism and marketplace fundamentalism are your enemies.

Nevertheless, Lewis has been undaunted and unstoppable. If Canada and the UN handed out mission medals to its political and diplomatic soldiers, Lewis’s dress uniform would be a swath of colours: currently the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Afrika, Lewis was Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF from 1995-1999, a commissioner for the World Health Organisation, a Rwandan genocide investigator for the Organisation of African Unity, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and the first full-time federal organiser of the then-new NDP in 1961. Currently he heads the Stephen Lewis Foundation (, an NGO which funds community-based initiatives in Afrika which renders palliative care to women dying of AIDS, and multilateral assistance to AIDS orphans and others living with HIV/AIDS.

So when Lewis speaks on any topic about global justice, not listening is not an option, especially when he’s no more than two degrees of separation from virtually any world leader. His rolodex includes global luminaries such as his friend Graça Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique and the second wife of Nelson Mandela; he’s played tour guide in Zambia to Oprah Winfrey; his boss, of course, is sorta-kinda the president of the world.

And despite Lewis’s legendarily loquacious lexicon (words such as “feckless,” “Byzantine” and “invidious” skitter from his lips like legions of grasshoppers before a lawnmower), Race Against Time is a very down-to-earth, highly readable volume. The book almost vibrates with the intensity of its stories of woe and humanity, and fully a fifth of its text is inspiringly devoted to solutions.

This Monday, Lewis will be speaking at the University of Alberta’s Student Union Building, with proceeds going to his foundation’s many AIDS relief projects, the cause which causes his voice to tremble with rage and his rage to inspire thousands to action. The legitimacy of Lewis’s rage is undeniable: 25 million people are already dead from the pandemic; more than 40 million people have HIV/AIDS, more than 2 million of them are children, and almost 65 percent of all the victims are Afrikans. Although donor governments routinely make extravagant election promises of AIDS relief, elections can be bought and sold by donations from Big Drugs, who were the only Forbes 500 victors during the market crash of 2001, when they increased their profits 32 percent from $28 billion to $37 billion. A modern medical holocaust has definitely been good for business.

Stephen Lewis spoke with me via telephone from his Toronto home just a day before the federal election about AIDS, the UN, and what the world is doing for--and against--Afrika. Here are key excerpts from our discussion.

MINISTER FAUST: In your book, you speak of the apparent inabilit of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and the IMF to understand how their Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) are actually reversing human development in education, health care and other areas and thus leading to widespread misery in this time of the HIV/AIDS plague. Are the IFIs incapable of helping? Or is it their objective to maintain inequality?

STEPHEN LEWIS: I’m no friend, at least intellectually and ideologically, of the IFIs. But I don’t think it would be fair to work on the assumption that they are determinedly keeping the poor poor, and they have some conspiratorial design which directs them to maintaining poverty and inequality. They pursue a series of policies in which from time to time they firmly believe, until the policies do great damage and then they jettison the policies. So if you ask the World Bank now about the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) which it imposed on Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, they will say that Structural Adjustment is dead, that SAPs they imposed were really policies designed for the Western world, not for struggling Third World economies. But the truth of the matter is, there was so much damage done to the social sectors, particularly education, health, nutrition, sanitation, water, all the things that make life bearable--so much damage done that Africa has yet to recover. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposes “macro-economic controls” on various countries in return for loans and unbreachable frameworks. If they want to hire more teachers, and the IMF says to the government, “You’re not allowed to spend any more money on teachers--your GNP can’t take it,” then a government like Zambia’s or Malawi’s is prohibited from doing so.

MINISTER FAUST: If you were to take world leaders and IMF and World Bank officials to some of the hellish zones of misery you describe in Race Against Time, do you think that would be sufficient to change their minds and their polices?

STEPHEN LEWIS: No, I’m not sure it would be enough. The World Bank has a great many people on the ground and they’re often very good and helpful people. That’s one of the aspects of the curious way in which one sees these terrible things on the ground and then doesn’t understand that the policies don’t help. I’ve often wondered how G8 leaders such as Paul Martin can go to Darfur and other parts of Africa and yet cannot bring himself to reach the 0.7 percent GDP target for foreign aid which Canada fashioned.... It’s odd how so many of these major political and financial figures can visit the continent, can clearly be wrenched emotionally by what they see, and yet return and reassume the passive business-as-usual stance.

MINISTER FAUST: Could it be that a few weeks or days of witnessing misery and desperation, even if provoking a sincere emotional response, simply can’t counter decades of intellectual, ideological and policy programming?

STEPHEN LEWIS: That’s a good point. It may well be they’re so encrusted by the policies they’ve implemented, they’re so captive of their own assumptions, that even though they see such misery and despair, it registers momentarily but not in the long-term. I once took Oprah Winfrey--I don’t pretend she’s a political leader, but she’s a pretty major international figure--for one day to Zambia. She’d spent quite a bit of time in South Africa working very closely with Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel and she’d seen a great deal, but in some ways South Africa’s a more privileged environment. She was really taken aback by what she saw in Zambia; she kind of recoiled at some of the wretchedness. I have a feeling that it made a difference to her. She subsequently in her programmes on orphaned children in Southern Africa and in many of the causes she took up was clearly affected by what she saw. I think it’s fair to say that even people who bring a lifetime of assumptions are capable after a few days of changing their positions, but the G8 powers seem unable to make that shift.

MINISTER FAUST: Recently you and another White author were interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC’s The Sunday Edition on the plight of Afrika, but there wasn’t a single Afrikan intellectual, writer or leader allowed into that discussion. That seems to reflect the views and actions of power at the highest levels, whether in this century of the 19th-- that Afrikan minds, opinions and policies either don’t exist or are irrelevant even when determining their fate.

STEPHEN LEWIS: There is an increasing recognition of the need to include African leaders and activists in most of these [attempts at solutions]. So now at the G8 conferences, you regularly have UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Obasanjo and Mbeki... you more and more have African participation in the critical debates. On Tony Blair’s Commission on Africa, you have very, very good African leaders making the decisions and forming the policy. More and more there is a recognition that you can’t do these things without Africa directing the result. But you’re right--fundamentally, it takes too long to involve particularly African activism in the work of the international community. But when you’ve got so many neo-colonial instincts--the world is still filled with people who are closet imperialists in their public behaviour on behalf of governments--it’s going to take a long time.


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