Stephen Lewis Lashes out at the UN

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 24, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

"PARALYZED," "uncritical," and "preposterously deferential." Afflicted by "congenital timidity," yet mired in a boys' club mindset that engenders "cosmic indifference" to the plight of women.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 24, 2005. Partner content is not updated. "PARALYZED," "uncritical," and "preposterously deferential." Afflicted by "congenital timidity," yet mired in a boys' club mindset that engenders "cosmic indifference" to the plight of women.

Stephen Lewis Lashes out at the UN

"PARALYZED," "uncritical," and "preposterously deferential." Afflicted by "congenital timidity," yet mired in a boys' club mindset that engenders "cosmic indifference" to the plight of women. The United Nations and its agencies have endured their share of criticism over the years, but seldom has such a verbal shelling come from inside the tent. Stephen LEWIS is Canada's former UN ambassador, a special envoy to the secretary general on AIDS in Africa, an all-round humanitarian, and quite possibly the world's most ardent multilateralist. But in a series of lectures to be delivered this week, he airs a good bit of the UN's dirty laundry - and lobs a few shots at Bob Geldof, the greying pop star who organized last summer's Live 8 benefit concerts.

Lewis offers no apologies for dispensing tough love. "There is a tendency to think that dissent should be contained or that self censorship is to be applauded," he writes in Race Against Time, a printed version of a text he's to deliver at the annual Massey Lectures in Toronto. "I regard both sentiments as the last refuge of an intellectual wimp." The focus of his attacks: the world community's failure to meet the so-called Millennium Development Goals, targets set by the world leaders five years ago to address the alarming spread of poverty and disease, especially in Africa.

Hunger, child mortality and maternal mortality were supposed to be slashed under the initiative; the world was to achieve universal primary education while reversing the spread of AIDs. The resolution provided a 15-year time frame to reach the benchmarks, Lewis notes, yet already they appear a distant dream. Poverty and hunger continue to spread in sub-Saharan Africa, according to recent reports. Barriers to primary education linger in many countries. And the HIV pandemic rages on.

Lewis believes this reflects a failure of will on the part of the developed world. The G8 countries (especially Canada) turned excuse-making into a high art as the goals languished, he argues, while international financial agencies like the World Bank worked at cross-purposes to non-governmental organizations. But Lewis saves his choicest language for the UN's own agencies, including UNICEF, an organization he once helped lead. On something as straightforward as eradicating primary education fees, he points out, the agency has repeatedly failed to execute its own relatively simple plans: bureaucrats dithered over the prospect that their plans might offend some countries, or that schools might be overcrowded. "Overall," Lewis says in a passage dripping with sarcasm, "the mood of the resident visionaries was almost Pavlovian in its opposition."

The broader UN takes its own share of lumps. The Millennium Development Goal on gender equality has no chance of being reached, according to Lewis, because, far from setting an example, the UN leadership itself shows "dilatory indifference" to women's equality. (Lewis keeps a group photo of the UN secretariat, taken in 1985, on the wall of his study in Toronto; of 32 officials appearing in the picture, he observes, not one is a woman.) And it's high time that UN agencies began properly supporting African governments in their efforts to help children orphaned by the AIDs crisis, he says.

Lewis says he's criticizing the UN only because he sees it as the proper leader of the entire Millennium Development initiative. "The reason I express things strongly is that that's not happening," he told Maclean's last week, "and I think it must happen. No other organization in the world has such strong relationships with governments, or such an armada of people on the ground." And in his lectures, there is no shortage of broadsides against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, long-time bêtes noires that he sees as impediments to the MDGs. Those agencies' loan and aid conditions, which require desperate governments to undertake neo-liberal economic reforms, have discouraged expansion of government health and education sectors, Lewis asserts. As a result, he argues, they have crippled countries' capacity to fight AIDS: "[The IMF] simply fails to understand that you can't deny the hiring of health professionals, in the face of an apocalypse."

The politicos, celebrities and NGOs who gathered last summer around the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, may also wish to cover their ears. At the conference, leaders committed to doubling African aid by 2010. But Lewis sees the pledge as suspect, given the G8's backsliding on African aid over the past decade. Geldof, in particular, was co-opted into applauding the initiative "because of his incestuous proximity to government," Lewis claims in his lectures. "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."

This, of course, is vintage Lewis - incisive criticism leavened with high-blown rhetoric. Using anecdotes from his two decades in the diplomatic arena, he casts himself as a misty-eyed idealist, or an implacable nag, depending on the circumstances. In the meantime, his stories are shot through with an underlying sense of guilt: over and over, he has left behind starving or disease-ridden children in squalid slums - often flying to the next international aid conference at some luxury hotel.

Still, Lewis wields enormous credibility because of his ground-level approach, meaning his lectures are sure to reverberate from diplomatic circles on down. "He has made a lot of visits to Africa and has a lot of personal connections to people on all sides of that issue," says John Foster of the Ottawa-based North-South Institute, which has been tracking progress on the MDGs since 2000. "He's probably done a great deal to keep it high on the agenda at the G8. We need more people like him, but we need them in office." Foster hopes Lewis's criticisms will help shame the international community - and Canada in particular - into taking the goals more seriously. With the wealth of studies, surveys and reports available on the cause and extent of the problems, he says, the lack of progress so far is inexcusable.

Then again, it's not as if Lewis has been silent on the topic. In his role as envoy on AIDS, he's become by far the most passionate and best-known voice calling world attention to Africa's plight. "I don't plan to stop until there's a breakthrough," he said last week, "and the breakthrough hasn't come." He's won a few battles, but the frustration he voices in the Massey Lectures is proof of a dismal truth: that sometimes even the harshest words, from the most credible source, aren't enough to make a difference.

Maclean's October 24, 2005