Saturday, February 11, 2012

Repost: I Just Get More Confused

I’ve been reading again. I’ve just finished Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis. Lewis “is the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, a commissioner on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, and the director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation.” (From the back cover.) 

He’s also Canadian. This book contains the transcripts for a bunch of lectures given in Canada in 2005. Idealistically he fits somewhere between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly. He thinks the Millennium Goals are a good idea but he doesn’t believe any of them will be reached. Like Easterly, Lewis thinks that aid agencies have to start doing things differently and that grassroots solutions are the only ones that will work. He also agrees that there needs to be more accountability in the aid industry.

There are many interesting stories and ideas in these lectures. From Lewis I learned that our 14th Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson who was in office from 1963 until 1968 was the first one to say that foreign aid should be .7%. This makes me very sad. Not only because the idea has been around for so long but also that it was a Canadian idea. Our current PM does not intend to fulfill his predecessor’s promises. That in my opinion makes us look doubly stupid.

Like Sachs and Easterly, Lewis lays a large part of the blame for Africa being in the situation it is in on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He even goes so far as to state that the WB and the IMF aught to cough up the money for every African child to go to school until university. It seems that the WB’s “conditionality” forced various governments to take money away from education, health and other social services and to insert “user fees” to repay the loans. What really makes Lewis mad is the fact that both the WB and the IMF were told about the mistakes they were making and refused to listen (p. 16).

Lewis has a lot to say about that great photo op that was Gleneagles: “an orgy of self-congratulation” (p. 22). He has a special hate on for Bob Geldof:


To hear it from crusader Bob Geldof, the summit was a spectacular success, the greatest single gathering on behalf of Africa in the history of humankind. I’m not sure that I’ve captured his full addiction to hyperbole, but at least it’s a nice approximation. The problem for Geldof lay in his incestuous proximity to government; as a result of his membership on the Blair Commission, and his remarkable success with the Live 8 concerts, he became and inescapable member of the Blair team, a cheerleader for the G8. It’s not an unusual process, this exercise in self-hypnosis; you get caught up in the sense of power and excitement and influence, and lose perspective. But in this instance, there’s too much at stake to submit to the blandishments of rock stars, whatever their celebrity status. (p. 26)

Lewis spends a lot of time exploring alterior motives for what happened at Gleneagles. For example, according to Lewis, Japan pledged to double their contributions at Gleneagles because they wanted a seat on the UN Security Council They were elected for 2005-2006. Lewis points out that Japan gives the least of all the developed countries to foreign aid. Even doubling that aid repeatedly will not be anywhere near the .7% agreed to. Lewis says that they should have lost their seat if they didn’t follow through on their pledge (which they didn’t) but that was not going to happen. The whole G8 Traveling show disgusts him:



Something occurred at the July 2005 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland that was deeply regrettable. Because of all the hype, because of the Live 8 spectacle, because of the Madison Avenue role of Geldof (Bono was much more measured), and above all, because of the brilliant co-option of the NGO community by Tony Blair, civil society was effectively muzzled in its response. Its normally tough, analytic appraisals were replaced by adoring complicity; the principled NGO community suddenly found itself basking in the incestuous aura of power. It was as if everyone was in the same tent, while Tony Blair did his laying on of hands. Most of the major NGO players knew that they’d been had, but there was a willful contagion of laryngitis. To read their press releases was almost comical: the words lay leaden on the page. They could barely summon a twitch of indignation, let alone a spasm of outrage. (p146)


While Lewis presents yet another viewpoint on the “Africa Problem” I would recommend this book. It’s a lot easier to read than Easterly’s book and funnier than Sach’s.





Reposts are posts written for previous journals or other places online that no longer exist.
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