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Stephen Lewis

Crusading against catastrophe

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Stephen Lewis

It is naïve to imagine that one person can save the world. But Stephen Lewis, through the work of his foundation, is making a pretty good effort.

It is surely naive to imagine that any one human being can save the world. But, Stephen Lewis, in lending his intellect and a large chunk of his heart to several of modern time’s toughest causes, is making a pretty good effort.

The former politician, diplomat, teacher, award-winning author, holder of 22 honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, recipient of an Order of Canada, among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2005, and Lesotho’s Knight Commander of the Most Dignified Order of Moshoeshoe, Lewis has devoted full energy to the challenge of poverty, the blight of HIV/AIDs, the perils of global warming, and more recently a crisis of sexual violence in Africa.

He has universally impressed along the way.

But it’s not about him. It’s about the planet and its most beleaguered citizens. And how the empowered can reach clear across the globe to touch the powerless.

He uses words like carnage, apocalypse, and catastrophe to describe what looms for those in southern Africa whose lives, already devastated by poverty and disease, increasingly are being complicated by the impact of climate change.

The phenomenon will hit Third World countries first and hardest, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted, because those nations are so economically vulnerable and topographically susceptible to droughts and floods.

Global Warming Scorches Africa

The effects of climate change, says Lewis, are beginning to be felt. He cites a documented migration northward in Africa of malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Agricultural dislocation resulting from a diversion of land for the production of biofuel crops has caused food prices to increase. Prices in Africa were up by 40 percent over the latter half of 2007. The World Food Program is distributing aid to ever more countries and is now being forced to ration its donations.

Down the road, warns Lewis, there likely will be widespread famine in Africa, conflict over dwindling water resources, and a legion of environmental refugees the world will not know how to grapple with.

“It is possible that the wrenching consequences of climate change may be the kind of devastation that you get from dropping a bomb on Hiroshima.”

Lewis’ mission is to connect the two worlds, the North American one of his birth and the other, in sub-Saharan Africa, a region he has been visiting and trying to help for 48 years.

Crush on a Continent

Africa grabbed Lewis by the throat when, in his twenties, he attended a conference in Ghana while working for Socialist International. What he discovered “was a continent of vitality, growth, and boundless expectation.

“It got into your blood, your viscera, your heart. The bonds were not just durable, they were unbreakable. There was something intoxicating about an environment of such hope, anticipation, affection, energy, indomitability–I was smitten for life.”

He set out to recruit what he calls “global citizens” who would be similarly inspired to reach across oceans. And he has found many.

These days, in addition to his teaching career and fending off requests from NDP leader Jack Layton to return to politics, he spends three-quarters of his time on the road, one week of six in Africa, delivering some 200 speeches annually and chairing the five-year-old Stephen Lewis Foundation.

The foundation quickly sprouted after a US poverty activist and friend instructed Lewis, to “stop whining and do something.” He did. The foundation to date has assembled a virtual army of Canadian grandmothers–200 groups, each consisting of between 10 and 100 women–who raise both money and consciousness on behalf of grannies in Africa who are raising grandchildren orphaned by the ravages of AIDS.

Under the foundation’s auspices, posses of Canadian grannies visit Africa, and African grannies in 2006 visited Canada, offering information about their lives and needs. To date, Canadian women have delivered to seniors over yonder about $3 million in aid, raised from such activities as Scrabble tournaments and bake sales.

The cash is deployed in Africa to buy food, pay school fees, and finance health care. Grandmother networks in the US, France, and Britain are also beginning to assemble. Lewis says the effort is galvanizing into “a social movement.”

Youth have been mobilizing, too. Lewis recalls not taking seriously a group of Ontario youths who told him they intended to raise $1 million for his foundation. “I laughed at it. Within 14 months, they had raised the $1 million!”

People Power Has Its Limits

Lewis is a strong believer in nongovernmental organizations such as World Vision, CARE, and Oxfam. But beyond working through such groups, First Worlders are limited in what they can realistically do as individuals on behalf of those in the Third World.

Energy-saving light bulbs are great, says Lewis, who does not own a car. But individual consumer actions are not the fix. “Only when there is a dramatic intervention on reducing the discharge of carbon will you ever make a substantial difference in the world that will save us from an apocalypse in 2050.”

And that sort of intervention can only be commandeered at the political level, through imposition of a carbon tax, carbon sequestration, carbon trading systems, and legislated restrictions on vehicle emissions. “These are fundamental things and they have to happen fast because wind, solar, and nuclear power take a lot of lead time and cost a lot of money.

“I’ve come to believe unless the political leadership in North America comes to its senses the world is going to have an unbelievable catastrophe in 20 or 40 years. The prospect is so unsettling you don’t even want to talk about it... you don’t want your kids and grandkids to inherit the world we’re in.”

Governments Go Their Own Way

Lewis vigorously praises British Columbia’s Liberal government for introducing a carbon tax earlier this year and just as vigorously slams Alberta’s Conservative government for policies that have yielded a tar sands project, considered one of the world’s biggest polluters.

“What is happening in Alberta is a calamity. It’s bloody minded. It’s so uninformed and unthoughtful, capitulating to the interests of the mega oil and natural gas and coal producers. It’s crazy. The consequences are going to be awful.”

This is not the first time Lewis has been disappointed in government. The developed world back in 1970 committed to helping developing nations by increasing foreign aid donations to 0.7 percent of their GDP.

All these years later, not a single country has met the target, and Lewis points out that Canada is the only country where foreign aid has dropped, from 3 percent to 2.9 percent in 2007.

The Harper government, he says, appears “completely indifferent” to the cause. Among the players he lauds are Britain and France, who have made solid pledges to reach the target in the next few years.

Lewis acknowledges that some impoverished nations, particularly India and China, have been able to make progress in developing a middle class with discretionary income. TheEconomist has reported that the world is a better place for those in destitute nations as literacy rates slowly climb, fertility drops, wars and conflicts diminish, and child mortality drops.

Third World economic growth also has been fairly robust.

Lewis scoffs, noting that 5 percent growth on a bare-bones economy such as that of Africa does not represent terribly much.

Yes, the governments of prosperous nations have been slow to act both on climate change and foreign aid, he says, adding with a chuckle: “I know the meaning of futility; I’m a socialist.” But Lewis is finding hope elsewhere.

Capitalists Join the Crusade

“What is most interesting for me as a social democrat is the clear concern of the private sector.” Lewis says he has been taken aback by the level of activism and enterprise being shown by corporate leaders.

He recounted attending a US conference where climate change crusader Al Gore spoke and being blown away by the attending executives’ enthusiastic reaction to Gore’s appeal.

“I think they’re worried about the viability of the economy if things fall apart. They may indeed become the leaders; that’s so interesting.”

As governments hang back, individual activism and the corporate sector’s instinct for survival, for now, may be the driving forces behind the effort to address woes on the other side of the world.

But one way or another, a trend has begun as growing numbers start to claim their global citizenship.

Passionate Advocate for Life

Stephen Lewis, pushing 71, is not your garden-variety granddad. But, then, absolutely nothing about this man’s life has been ordinary. Lewis was a member of the Ontario provincial parliament at 26. Seven years on, he was leading the province’s New Democrats.

In 1984 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney named Lewis Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, allowing him to turn his attention to the international scene. Through the 1990s, he immersed himself in matters African, first coordinating an international study on the consequences of armed conflict on children, then serving as deputy executive director of UNICEF. While at UNICEF, he joined a panel of eminent persons investigating the Rwandan genocide.

In 2001, Lewis began a five-year stint as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, after which he began teaching global health at McMaster University in Hamilton and acting as senior advisor to the Mailman School of Public Health at New York’s Columbia University.

For the past five years Lewis–son of the late David Lewis, who once headed the federal New Democrats–has also chaired the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a Toronto-based philanthropic organization that rallies Canadian youth and grandmothers to the cause of their struggling counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a region where more than 22 million people–most of them women–are currently living with HIV or AIDS. Since its inception, the foundation has directed $20 million to 270 helping projects in 15 African countries.

Says Lewis, who has two grandsons, of retirement: “What retirement? I don’t ever think of it for a second. Absolutely not. Too much to do. It will take another 71 years to do what I want to do.”

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