Leading by example: the Stephen Lewis Foundation
I am often reticent when it comes to Canadian organisations working in Africa. Especially when it comes to the issue of HIV/AIDS, the work of foreign organisations on the continent, while often well intentioned, easily smacks of paternalism and neo-imperialism, with primarily white men being flown half way across the world (first class, no less) to “save” dying black babies. On the surface, the Stephen Lewis Foundation differs little from these organisations that I approach so critically: Mr. Lewis is (surprise!) an older, white man, who stems from Canadian political royalty (and, no doubt, prefers Business class to Economy on his frequent around-the-world flights). His fame within the AIDS world comes primarily from his position as former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa under Koffi Anan (again—a white man from Canada representing AIDS in Africa? But I digress). Yet while Lewis has been criticised by fellow AIDS activists for some of his strategy and, (yet again), for his status as a while male speaking “on behalf of Africa,” I believe that Mr. Lewis and his Foundation not only have the best intentions at heart, but also have the ability to do profound work in the field of HIV/AIDS.
The work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation focuses on women (who carry the burden of the disease); orphans (it is estimated that worldwide over 15 million children have been orphaned as a result of AIDS); grandmothers (who often must care for their children, grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren who are left parentless in the wake of the virus); and people living with HIV/AIDS. The Foundation focuses on helping to fund grassroots projects involved in the fight against the virus. Such a grassroots approach is becoming more heavily lauded within the AIDS world, as large non-profits and funds are often criticised for squandering essential monies and not understanding how to best interact with communities most affected. The Foundation boasts that since 2003, it has funded over 300 projects in 15 sub-Saharan African countries.
Beyond the specific work of the Foundation, it is Mr. Lewis’ passion and eloquence when speaking of the burden of HIV/AIDS that is particularly impactful. I first heard him speak at an event in high school, and my already sparked interest in HIV/AIDS was quickly peaked. Mr. Lewis demands that complacency be set aside, and calls apathy what it truly is: not simply an aversion to discomfort, but also a complicity in the continuation of suffering within the lives of millions. He states, and I believe, that that we all have the duty to care, and the ability to act. Since my first encounter with Mr. Lewis seven years ago, I have seen him speak on several more occasions, and his passion never fails to move me. For this, I am willing to stray from my liberal tendencies and over-look the fact that the Foundation is named after Mr. Lewis, giving opportunities for ego-stroking and further perpetuating the idea that one (white man) can save a continent, in order to concede that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is an example of how Canadian multilaterialism can effectively be put into practice.
For more information on Mr. Lewis and the Foundation, check out http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org.