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Like a tornado picking up velocity every time it touches down, Stephen Lewis is crossing the country with the message: "It's all so unnecessary, so crazy, that hundreds of millions of people should be thus abandoned," as he writes in his just-launched book, Race Against Time.
Headlines follow in his dust: "Bob Geldof played into the hands of G8 leaders: Stephen Lewis," ran a headline in last Saturday's Gazette. "Stephen Lewis: an envoy on the brink of no return," warned the Globe & Mail on the same day. "'If only the world would care,'" ran an excerpt from Lewis's book, printed in last Sunday's Gazette.
When he stopped at McGill on Saturday, October 22, for his third lecture in CBC-Radio's five-part Massey Lecture circuit, it was clear his message had lost none of its force.
Lewis is the United Nations secretary general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and he's outraged that the UN and its various agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Canadian government are not doing more for the 53 countries of sub-Saharan Africa where HIV/AIDS has already claimed 22 million lives and left 14 million orphans.
Speaking to a capacity audience of 650 in the ballroom of the New Student Residence, Lewis described, with the eloquence, and humanism for which he is known, the litany of disappointments Africans have suffered at the hands of the international aid agencies since the pandemic began in 1982. While the promises broken and commitments forgotten touch many spheres of African lives affected by HIV/ AIDS, Lewis in this lecture, "An Avalanche of Studies, Little Studying," concentrated on access to education or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
"No one pays attention to the promises made," he said, citing the example of an initiative made in 2000 by Carol Bellamy, head of UNICEF, to ban school fees and all school-related costs in Africa. "Under threat from the pandemic, children must be able to turn to schools as places of learning, inclusion, stability and life-saving information about HIV/AIDS," said Lewis, quoting Bellamy.
"It was a truly important, and unexpected, promulgation," he said, but one that was forgotten: "How then is it possible that school fees in Africa bedevil school attendance to this day?"
While acknowledging that banning school fees, which are charged in most African countries, is not as simple as it may sound — Who, for instance, makes up the lost fees? Where will all the new teachers come from? Who will build the additional schools? What about questions of national sovereignty or parental authority and choice? — Lewis maintains that access to primary school is the key to slowing the pandemic and to ensuring that Africa's young people are prepared to fill the enormous gaps created in the adult population by the virus.
Furthermore, said Lewis, children want to go to school. "I am writing and speaking passionately about it because every time I travel to Africa, I encounter orphan children who are desperate to be in school, who need friends and teachers and attention, who need one meal a day that could come from a school feeding program, who need the sense of self-worth that education could bring, who want so much to learn, and who are denied all of it because the costs of schooling are prohibitive."
Despite the dire economic straits of many African countries, several have undertaken to remove primary school fees. Lewis noted the case of Kenya that, on the heels of an election, opened the doors of primary school to all children.
"In January 2003, 1.3 million Kenyan children who had not been in school before turned up at the doors of the schools," said Lewis, who later explained that President Kibaki was able to fulfill his election promise in part by a grant of $50 million from the World Bank, a sort of "mandatory restitution," or guilt payment, on the part of the taskmaster of economic monetarism.
Lewis explained that, under the Bank's policy of "conditionality," loans since the 1980s were granted on condition that countries limit social spending in areas like health care and education, one method being to impose school fees. He recounted that Kenya's minister of education "was therefore entirely comfortable in demanding that the Bank help with compensatory financing when school fees were abolished, [the Bank] having done the damage in the first place."
Universal access to primary education is one of the five goals of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015, established by the UN Millennium General Assembly in 2000, and Lewis believes that is still attainable if UNICEF "reclaims the educational domain" and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund repay their "debt" to Africa and "foot the bill."
"What we need is a new approach, country by country, where the country makes the decision, designs the interventions and abolishes school fees of every kind, and UNICEF provides expert technical assistance on the one hand, and organizes the collective financial international response on the other — a perfect test of the stated intentions of the G8 [countries, at last July's summit in Scotland]."
Is Lewis vying for the position of executive director of UNICEF? He didn't say.
But through the Stephen Lewis Foundation, created in 2003 and with $8 million raised by year's end, he is helping HIV/AIDS orphans get to school, primary and secondary. Access to secondary school, which costs money everywhere in Africa, becomes an issue once you have everyone in primary school, he said, adding that African leaders in Zambia, Lesotho, Uganda and South Africa are already debating what to do.
Likening Africa's potential loss of two generations "of children whose life of the mind, if it was given breath at all, will cease abruptly just as they enter their teens" to the loss of similar numbers of Holocaust victims between 1933 and 1945, Lewis concluded: "The Holocaust fractured a large piece of civilization. This is a different, but analagous, holocaust."
In the question period following the lecture, Lewis praised Canada for exporting the least expensive generic AIDS medication to Africa but criticized the government for not committing itself to a date when 0.7 percent of our GNP will be allocated to foreign aid, the amount needed if the MDGs are to be attained. He urged listeners to pressure the government to honour its promise, especially given that it's a minority government.
One law student asked if African countries would be in a position to seek damages from the international financial institutions for the lives lost when health care positions were cut in order to comply with lending conditions. Lewis joked that he'd dropped out of law school after six weeks "but by all means take a crack at it."
His next Massey Lecture took place on October 26, at Dalhousie University, Halifax where Lewis's lecture was titled "Women: Half the World Barely Represented." It is through increasing the sense of empowerment in young women, the group most infected and affected by the virus, that Lewis sees the greatest hope in stemming the tide of the virus.
CBC Radio will broadcast the Massey Lecture on Ideas, November 7 to 11, at 9 pm on CBC Radio One. See www.cbc.ca/ideas for more information.