Friday, January 06, 2006

Review: Race Against Time

[Stephen Lewis. Race Against Time. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2005.]

When speaking about knowledge of the world, I sometimes feel it is more accurate to talk about "gradations of ignorance" rather than "levels of expertise." Each of us can have direct knowledge only of our local experiential context, where "local" doesn't necessarily refer to geography but to social location. To learn about what lies beyond that location requires having the opportunity to visit, to listen, and to read. I continually come face-to-face with my own ignorance of realities in Canada, let alone of the massive and diverse spectrum of spaces that make up the rest of the world.

Like much of the white left in North America, one rather large piece of the world about which my level of ignorance tends towards the higher rather than the lower is the continent of Africa. If I were to deliberately set about to reduce my level of ignorance, ideally I would select books written by women and men of progressive to radical politics who are themselves African; I would not necessarily pick a book by a white Canadian social democrat. Nonetheless, through one facet of the magic of Christmas, in which you receive books you would not buy for yourself but which you invariably end up enjoying, I did receive one in the latter category, and I am very glad.

I have never heard anyone else use this expression, but one could describe the family of Stephen Lewis as being the First Family of the social democratic left in Canada. His father David was the first federal secretary of the CCF, Canada's first broadly based social democratic party, and was later federal leader of the CCF's successor, the NDP. Stephen was the NDP's first full-time paid organizer at the federal level in the early '60s, served in the Ontario legislature and later led the Ontario NDP. His wife Michelle Landsberg is a prominent feminist and for many years wrote a wonderful regular column in the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation newspaper. His son Avi has become involved in progressive media production, including the now-defunct CBC series counterSpin. Avi, of course, is married to Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame.

Every year, the Massey Lectures are delivered on CBC radio by a prominent thinker and published by Anansi. The politics of the speakers varies considerably, but over the years the series has included the likes of John Ralston Saul, Ursula Franklin, R.D. Laing, and Noam Chomsky.

Lewis was named the the Canadian ambassador to the U.N. in the mid-'80s and he has served at various posts within the U.N. secretariat since his time as ambassador ended. He is currently the Secreatary-General's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. The focus of his lectures is Africa, African development, and specifically HIV/AIDS.

I learned a lot from this book. Lewis is not afraid to talk about how the World Bank and the IMF have devastated Africa, and the neocolonial relationship between rich countries which give aid and the African countries which depend on it. He tackles head on the Geldoff-and-NGO co-opted hype about what was achieved at the recent G8 summit and he does not hesitate to point out the extreme U.S. stinginess when it comes to development aid. He also points out the ongoing Canadian failure to meet the widely accepted target of 0.7% of GNP to foreign aid, even though that target was a Canadian idea to begin with and we are the only G8 nation that has consistently run budget surpluses over the last number of years. His words have, I'm sure, introduced many other Canadians like me to aspects of the reality on the ground in Africa with respect to HIV/AIDS and other issues, and to the strange ways of the United Nations -- an institution he values highly but is not afraid to criticize. His very strident section on the failure of the U.N. with respect to women and women's issues is a particularly important contribution to the never-ending debate about U.N. reform.

I was also struck by the discussion of the huge numbers of children in Africa who are orphans because of AIDS. Many are being raised by their grandmothers or they are living in child-headed households. Lewis repeatedly emphasized how this loss of such a large proportion one or two entire generations is unprecedented in recorded history. In many ways, that's true, but at least some of the impacts -- the trauma, the disruption of family continuity in terms of culture and wisdom and stability -- make me think of the impact of residential schools on people from indigenous nations in Canada. The two situations are certainly not the same for many reasons, but I couldn't help but think there are some analogies.

I don't feel I know enough to say for sure, but my sense is that Lewis does not entirely escape a colonial frame but he does better than almost anything else you'll find in the North American mainstream. He doesn't shy away from naming the more recent blame that the rich countries have for Africa's plight, but I get the sense that there is a lot more context than he includes that would create a much stronger picture of predation by North on South as an ongoing reality, and a much stronger case for reparative justice in the form of massive capital flow from North America and Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. While his repeated emphasis on the value of universally accessible primary education in African countries probably does reflect the stated desires of a great many African children and adults, as he indicates, I'd be interested to hear if any African radicals have anything to say about how expanding the role of the state in the lives of increasing numbers of children might also help create a workforce that serves the needs of capital, both local and global. I have the sense that there are a number of other issues that deserve more attention, too, but I don't know enough to identify them.

I also do not feel I know enough to comment intelligently on the policy recommendations he makes in the final lecture. I suspect they are mostly good ideas, with the kind of strengths that you would expect from a die-hard democratic socialist: a dash of idealism and a fair bit of practicality, more than a few political flaws when viewed from a more rigorously left and anti-colonial standpoint but the potential to save many millions of lives.

I hope Lewis's very useful, very easy-to-read public intervention can be a part of an ongoing discussion of the role of Canada in the world, the role of the U.N., the ongoing neocolonial oppression of Africa, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS. It has helped bring my ignorance of Africa down a notch, if nothing else.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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