This does not permit us silence: An interview with Stephen Lewis
Beth Porter: You say that sometimes you despair in face of the African pandemic. Why do you keep at this work?
Stephen Lewis: Mostly because futility leads nowhere. There is so much death it’s hard to avoid feeling emotion-ally scalded, but you can’t submit to that kind of thing.
I wrote the Massey Lectures because I needed to say to the world, ‘Look, not that I’ve failed, but I’ve fallen dreadfully short, and these are the reasons for things not functioning.’ If sometimes I incriminated my own beloved United Nations and it is offended, I can live with that. I could not live with silence, or with another four years the same. I don’t think anybody who isn’t in Africa can understand the incredible, completely unnecessary daily loss of thousands of lives. This does not permit us silence.
How can our schools help people acquire a global vision? Focus more on developing countries, raising consciousness and heightening interest. Teach about the Millennium Development Goals, the targets that the United Nations has set for 2015, and about the nature of HIV and AIDS and what it is doing to high prevalence societies. The Board of York Region (north of Toronto), for instance, completely redid its curriculum around these issues and is making a tremendous difference.
What do you think of programs that take students to Africa for a short volunteer experience?
I think they are uniformly effective. The young people can learn a lifetime in one month and they usually come back fired up to make a contribution, which is what you want when you are trying to create global citizens. They are enormously wel-come. You can keep them safe and not go where it is risky.
How did your work in Africa in your early 20s influence you?
It profoundly influenced the way I’ve seen the world ever since. I’ve understood the nature of disparity and inequality and social injustice vividly in international terms by having seen the extraordinary efforts needed to yank the continent out of impoverishment. And I’ve seen the enormous resilience and courage, the inherent generosity, sophistication and intelligence that exists at the grassroots in Africa. Also, a certain idealism flows from going to a continent like Africa. You feel social change is possible and you want to work for it.
You have said that if the commitments to gender equality had been honoured we’d have a different world today.
Generally, I think women bring to world affairs a heightened sensibility to human needs and human vulnerability. In developing countries, they do all the caring and most of the work, and they have a better sense of the way the country works at the community level. Those who have been to international conferences know the international covenants and fight for change, whether it’s property rights, inherited rights, laws against sexual violence or schooling for girls. The more women in prominent positions, the more likely we are to have a better set of social relationships and a more sane, balanced, decent and humane society.
I’m excited that the monolithic array of male leaders in Africa has finally been breached with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s recent election in Liberia. She will be a good president and will also advance women’s rights. In the context of AIDS, if women had power, things would change. Universal access to treatment and reversal of the destruction of the social and eco-nomic order will be impossible without women at the center.
You draw a huge audience. What are people responding to?
I think they are responding because they feel that when part of the human family is under siege, the privileged part should respond. There’s a decency and generosity in Canada. It’s not merely financial; it’s compassionate, expending of self, inclusive. People want to help. I myself am not responding from some overwrought humanitarianism. I respond because in my family from my father’s generation to my own and I hope to our children, the overriding principle is that you spend your life struggling against social injustice. I’m part of a never-ending effort to create a more equal, caring and principled society.
Is there a spiritual foundation to your work?
No. I’m driven by a social philosophy, by democratic socialism, not by any spiritual instinct.
Is democratic socialism changing today?
I want to write a book about democratic socialism one day. I think it has been profoundly distorted in the post cold war period. Tony Blair is probably the leading democratic socialist internationally. His participation in Iraq has dealt a pretty savage blow to democratic socialism. I think his leadership on Africa through the Commission on Africa, is entirely commendable, but there’s no certainty it will go anywhere.
In Canada, we’re not a government in most provinces and federally, but we have some standing and we’ve still got our integrity, and that’s what’s most important. In a minority government you make compromises so the system can work, or so as not to self-immolate for the pleasure of capitalism. I think the fundamentals of democratic socialism remain in place.
How do we situate ourselves in front of cynicism about the UN?
I believe the United Nations remains the best-placed agency to bring change. If it could provide full leadership, I think it would prevail. It has been dreadfully sullied, mainly by its peace and security staff – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Srebenica, Darfur. Conflicts, rivalry and unprincipled behavior, often amongst the permanent members of the Security Council, put a kind of straightjacket on the Secretary-General.
What the world appreciates about the UN is the work of UNICEF, the WHO, the World Food Program and agencies that really make a difference in lives. If we can shift the debate, which I’m going to try to help do, then the United Nations will come back into its own and the cynicism will dissipate.
What gives you optimism?
The fact that there is now among African governments an absolutely formidable determination to break the back of the pandemic. They were in a pattern of denial, of silence, but that has changed. And a time will come when the western world will not be so passive and inert.
For your information:
- Stephen Lewis, Race Against Time, Toronto: Anansi, 2005 (The CBC Massey Lectures).
- The Stephen Lewis Foundation: www.stephenlewisfoundation.org Before Dec. 12, you can give a Holiday Season Gift in someone's name and have it acknowledged:
- “Voices from the Frontlines” in the fight against HIV/AIDs in Africa: www.stephenlewisfoundation.org/grassroots/frontlines.htm
- The United Nations Millennium Development Goals:
- UN World Health Organization (WHO): www.who.int/en/
- Make Poverty History Alliance: www.makepovertyhistory.ca/
- CIDA www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/index-e.htm
- Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger, Me to We: Turning Self Help on its Head, Canada: Wiley, 2004
- International Volunteer programs for young people:
- Free the Children: www.freethechildren.com/index.php
- Leaders Today: www.leaderstoday.com/
- Canada World Youth: www.cwy-jcm.org/en
- Intercordia Canada: www.InterCordiaCanada.org
- The Coady International Institute: www.coady.stfx.ca/
- New book from PLAN: The Company of Others:
- Stories of Belonging, www.planinstitute.ca/products_books.cfm