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Vol 38  No 9
February 2, 2006


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Student View

By Megan Jackman



A certain Mr. Lewis

Honours and achievements read: Maclean’s inaugural Canadian of the Year 2003, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World 2005, 24th recipient of the Pearson Peace Medal, Companion of the Order of Canada, and holder of 22 honorary degrees from Canadian universities.

Media headlines read: Contending Response from Governments has Been Inadequate, Attack on Face-Saving Rhetoric on African Aid, and Mr. Lewis is on the Ropes.

Name reads: Stephen Lewis.

You may be wondering why I chose to write about Stephen Lewis in a Student View column. His life and work in Africa, alone, is a topic which deserves at least, a 10 page essay ­ a short column simply can’t convey ample credit. Yet, I’m writing with the hope that this short piece will spark the interest of at least one student to find out more about Stephen Lewis.

Stephen Lewis is the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Mr. Lewis is also a commissioner of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health and, in the past, held various posts within the United Nations.

In 2000, the Millennium Assembly was held by the United Nations, bringing together a representative international community in an attempt to secure a number of goals. It was decided that, by the year 2015, these goals would be reached

Eight goals had been set, amongst them “cut the worst of poverty and hunger in half, achieve universal primary education, halt and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria.”

In his book Race Against Time he noted, “Every learned commentator, from the World Bank to the UN Development Program, asserts that not one of the high-prevalence HIV countries will make the goals.”

Throughout 2005, Stephen Lewis has been delivering the Massey Lectures, expressing his perpetual impatience with various authoritative bodies and, as a consequence, immediately putting his position with the UN at risk. “This has not been an easy undertaking for me ... it seems to me that those of us who care about the UN have an ethical responsibility to point out its failings and to suggest constructive alternatives.”

It has been pointed out in many news stories that indeed Mr. Lewis could simply retire himself from his uphill battle. After decades of being witness to broken promises and a heart-broken Africa, one would think that, at the age of 68, Mr. Lewis would be irrevocably numbed by it all.

Still he insists, not to be spiteful or cause scandal, on shedding light on a situation which has been handled improperly ­ perhaps for too long.

“There is a tendency to think that dissent should be contained or that self-censorship is to be applauded,” said Mr. Lewis. “Unless the foibles and failings of the UN on the development and humanitarian agendas are discussed publicly, they will never change.”

Wow, how straightforward that is. But I’m sure you can imagine the backlash that Mr. Lewis could experiences from such statements. Once bureaucracies are established, it seems to become difficult for individuals to emerge above even one mistake made within the system.

On Dec. 26, 2005, a report in the Globe and Mail indicated that Mr. Lewis was left wondering whether he would be fired from his current UN posting after the response of the media to his Massey Lectures. However, he has yet to receive negative feedback from the UN and his posting has recently been extended to the end of 2006.

“All of the conjecture about whether or not Stephen had been too tough, or overstated things, or is on the ropes ... it’s all just been resolved,” said Mr. Lewis.

Is it okay to desensitize ourselves to the shortcomings of developing nations? It is never right to chalk it up to “that’s just the way things are ... it’s going to be another story if a similar mass suffering creeps into our own backyards.

In 2004, I was honoured to attend one of Mr. Lewis’ live speeches on the HIV/AIDS crisis. Since then I’ve made an effort to follow the progress of his journey; it’s hard to appreciate the shock factor of such a crisis until you hear the personal stories of its victims.

And so, as university students ­ many of whom will become future leaders in a world where societal challenges are intensifying ­ I think there is an important approach for us to learn from Stephen Lewis.

Perhaps some cynics would say that Stephen Lewis lives in a world of idealistic dreams ­ dreams that are maudlin but certainly not realistic. Yet, it is his frank refusal to accept a “nothing more can be done right now” attitude that makes Mr. Lewis a most realistic leader; a front-liner for the people who suffer at ground level amidst in-the-air talks and money donations which seemingly remain just that, in the air.

Perhaps Mr. Lewis would modestly divert these praises to the many others who, like himself, genuinely strive to improve the HIV/AIDS crisis. But, at least, Mr. Lewis, let us thank you for being a representative of those individuals who see it like it is, tell it like it is, and unceasingly tug on the hand of those who promise to help but never follow.

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