Stephen Lewis chastises big bankers for their role in Africa's HIV crisis

One of Canada's most famous humanitarians has criticized international financial institutions for playing a role in the spread of AIDS in Africa. Stephen Lewis, the UN secretary general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the Georgia Straight that the pandemic is linked in part to destructive actions by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Lewis, who became special envoy in 2001, said international financial institutions launched "structural-adjustment programs" that "clobbered" African society. Under these programs, the World Bank, the IMF, and other institutions lent money to countries that agreed to impose user fees on health and education services, or sold off public corporations.

"There is a definite connection in the sense that structural-adjustment programs clearly impoverished countries and clearly had a devastating effect on the social sectors, particularly health, nutrition, education, water, and sanitation," Lewis said. "So all of the elements of a society which expose poor people to risk—when you go to a school, you have to pay—all of it [was] imposed by the international financial institutions."

On Tuesday (October 18), Lewis will be at UBC's Chan Centre for the Performing Arts to deliver the first of his five 2005 Massey Lectures. The lectures will also be broadcast on the CBC Radio Ideas series and are about to be published in a new book, Race Against Time (Anansi Press, $18.95).

Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, claims in Race Against Time that the international community's response to the AIDS pandemic over the past decade has amounted to "criminal neglect", leading to the loss of countless lives. In one poignant section, he discusses a visit to Kenya, where six children chanted a dirge, "Here we are, the orphans, carrying our parents in their coffins to their graves."

Lewis told the Straight that in South Africa, more than six million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, the highest number for any country in the world. He said that in Uganda, the prevalence of the infection has fallen from 20 to 25 percent in the late 1980s to seven percent today, thanks to aggressive prevention and treatment programs. However, in South Africa, the rate has remained above 20 percent for people between 15 and 49 years old.

Lewis added that South Africa has introduced excellent prevention and care programs. However, he claimed that the country's president, Thabo Mbeki, has been very slow in delivering treatment.

"The ambivalence, the lack of energetic concern around the pandemic, has meant that the rollout continues to be slow," Lewis said.

He notes in Race Against Time that with the exception of the Gates Foundation, which was created by the Seattle software tycoon, no major corporate donors are seriously addressing AIDS in Africa. He also devotes a lecture to the devastating impact that school fees are having on African orphans' ability to attend school, where they could eat one meal per day and learn about AIDS prevention.

His first lecture focuses almost exclusively on the failure of international financial institutions and G8 nations to seriously address the pandemic in Africa. He pointed to international trading inequities as a factor contributing to African poverty. Lewis noted that every cow in the European Union is subsidized by approximately $2 per day, whereas between 400 and 500 million Africans live on less than a dollar a day.

In addition, Lewis criticized western nations for luring away African health professionals from their native countries.

Lewis praised Canada for supporting international initiatives against AIDS. He also credited Canada for introducing a law that permits generic-drug manufacturers to export lower-cost AIDS medications to the developing world.

However, Lewis criticized Canada for failing to contribute 0.7 percent of its gross national product to international assistance, unlike Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Luxembourg. "That has really undermined and tarnished Canada's reputation," Lewis said.

He cited growing concern over rising HIV/AIDS rates in China, Russia, Ukraine, and India. He noted that five to six million have tested positive in India. "Everybody is holding their breath about India because obviously if there is an explosion in India, the world simply couldn't handle it," he said.