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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Race Against Time

Reviewed: May 21, 2008
By: Stephen Lewis
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
198 pages, $18.95

I finished reading this book, which deals essentially with three major problems in the developing world, just a few weeks before the Burmese cyclone hit, and underscored some of the systemic issues that pertain to exactly those problems.

Stephen Lewis, in part because of some formative experiences in his early adult years, has a long-standing fascination with Africa, and most of his five talks during the 2005 Massey Lecture Series deals with problems on that continent, but much of what he has to say could be applied to Burma, Afghanistan, or any other state where a combination of history, imperialism, social inertia has ploughed the ground in which despotism has had an opportunity to hold sway.

It's not until the second lecture that Lewis provides the autobiographical background that helps us to understand why he feels so deeply about the injustices that plague the continent. He spent much of 1960-61 there, working at a variety of educational and social relief projects, being there at a time when newly liberated nations were filled with optimism and it seemed that the future might be bright. He left only at the beck and call of Tommy Douglas, on the eve of the birth of the New Democratic Party, and so experience became wedded with idealism at an impressionable age.

Africa still beckoned, and he returned from time to time, but the promise of those early years curdled with time.

"The Africa I knew was poor, but it wasn't sagging under the weight of oppression, disease and despair; it was absolutely certain that it could triumph over every exigency."

As the years passed that ceased to be true, till Lewis came round to the opening words of his first lecture.

"I have spent the last four years of my life watching people die."

The immediate cause of this has been the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has afflicted entire populations across gender lines in Africa, unlike its demographic reach in most of Europe and the Americas.

Lewis had seen hardship before. As a United Nations' envoy he had watched the Rwandan genocide and was certainly aware of the conflict in the Balkans. These events, however, had a timeline. They began and ended. The pandemic seems to have no end. It has wiped out a large part of the middle generation and left children to be raised by their grandparents, or left them to raise themselves.

It is not entirely a preventable problem, for the very nature of the virus is that it can lay dormant for a long time before it manifests, and yet it is a treatable problem, for we know that proper nutrition forestalls its advance, that proper medications can extend productive lifetimes and ease the pain.

And we know, says Lewis, that all these things could be made available to Africa - but we also know that they are not.

The context for the pain that inflicts Africa is something that has been created by the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a set of social design policies that Bruce Cockburn once described succinctly as intended to "keep them on the hook with insupportable debt."

Local economies have been forced to adapt to feed the needs of the West. The old notion of "banana republics" has been extended to coffee and other specific agricultural products, diamonds, gold, oil. In order to get loans nations have been forced to privatize water resources, trim social programs and actually reduce the cadre of professional people that are needed to run a nation or to deal with a crisis.

State supported education is barely available in most of these nations and while this problem has been the subject of a seemingly endless round of cultural studies, all of which seem to agree on the solution, very little has been done. There are some nations where elementary school is now free, but school fees and charges bar many children from getting past what we would call grades 6 or 8.

Lewis's third target is the plight of women. "Half the World - Barely Represented" is the title of his fourth essay and much of it is about how ineffective his beloved UN has been in addressing this situation. Bureaucratic infighting and turf wars have prevented the development of a truly effective agency to address women's issues. Such an agency might be useful world wide, but it paternalistic, civil war ravaged Africa, where rape is often an instrument of ethnic cleansing and genocide, it is, Lewis holds, an absolutely vital thing that ought to be in place by now.

Lewis concludes with a lecture filled with proposals for possible solutions, ways in which the Millennium Development Goals might be realized. I won't outline that here because you should read the book, or get the audio CDs and listen to the man yourself, but I will add this: the solutions he proposes all have something to do with taking a look at our prevailing balance of values.

It is not possible to improve a world where the annual expenditure on the military outstrips spending on human needs by a factor of 20 to 1.

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