Custom Search


Book Review
Ian Johnston

Stephen Lewis, Race Against Time
Toronto: Anansi Press 2005
ISBN 0-88784-733-1

For as long as I can remember, my perceptions of Africa (and therefore my ability to think about the continent) have been decisively shaped by three recurring groups of images.  The first is the Africa of the National Geographic, a surpassingly beautiful place full of exotic landscapes, animals, and people. The second is the Africa in the news, a place of ceaseless, bloody, and apparently insoluble political turmoil.  And the third is the Africa of the humanitarian appeals, a woeful picture of devastating famine and fatal diseases, usually featuring disturbing pictures of small children with haunting eyes and ominously protruding bellies covered in flies.

In my younger days I did strive to follow events in an attempt to understand.  But somewhere between the Algerian war, Lumumba, Amin, the Mau Mau uprising, the Sharpeville massacre, famine in Ethiopia, intervention in Somalia, atrocities in Darfur, and entertainment celebrities at gatherings of international financiers I gave up trying to keep track.  And in this I suspect I’m not alone.  How many well-informed readers of this journal could list, say, the names of thirty-five countries of Africa (there are well over fifty) or tell anyone the nation of which Ouagadougou is the capital (a country with a population greater than that of the Czech Republic)?

This response has nothing to do with a judgment on the African people as, well, somehow inferior.  Whatever stature Western people once thought they had as moral agents or civilizing presences obviously has long been exploded by the record of atrocities we have inflicted on ourselves and others.  But these despairing chapters in our history at least seemed to come to some sort of conclusion eventually.  We and others moved on to better times and different crises. Not so in Africa.  Thus, trying to maintain a sympathetic understanding of African affairs for me became too exhausting and depressing.  I have continued to make substantial charitable donations to African humanitarian causes and turned my attention elsewhere.

Prompting this reaction, too, was the obvious fact that the repeated attempts by Western governments and big international organizations to assist Africa with massive amounts of money and development projects have for over thirty years (or more) failed to achieve significant solutions.  In 1986 (before the disastrous AIDS epidemic) the United Nations declared Africa a critical problem area which the world needed to address, and almost fifteen years later (in 2000), with the situation in Africa exponentially worse, the international community recommitted itself to the problem with the eight Millennium Assembly Goals (which included, among other things, cutting poverty and famine, making education more available, and reducing disease and mortality rates).  And yet, for all the firm rhetoric, things continue to deteriorate.

So I suspect Stephen Lewis’ recent book Race Against Time, the text of his Massey lectures on the CBC, is addressed, above all, to people like me, educated Canadian voters who care but who have, for one reason or another, failed to make dealing with African problems a much higher priority for our governments.  The book is a polemical wake-up call, written by someone who has a long familiarity with and an abiding and passionate love for Africa and who is enormously angry at the poverty and carnage he encounters there, at the incompetence of those who have tried to deal with them, and at the apparent indifference of much of the world.

Lewis is the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and he has a long first-hand experience of continent’s problems, both in the rural villages and the halls of power.  In addition, he speaks and writes with forceful and simple eloquence and a firm grasp of the political facts.  It’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified to jolt us into a better informed and more emotionally engaged awareness of what’s going on in Africa, how it happened, and what we can do about it.

The great strength of this book is Lewis’ ability to range from essential information about the work of the United Nations and the World Bank, among others, to the particular effects on the ground (in this village or that hospital, confronted with these people).  He is always alert to the ways in which particular policies are shaped, neglected, or abused by those in charge of implementing them and how these reactions affect the recipients (the sections on the importance of education and the problem of orphans are particularly illuminating).  He pays generous tribute to many colleagues whose work has had a vital effect, and he excoriates those who have simply refused to recognize or have compounded the problem.  These qualities are more than enough to make the text required reading for those who need to be reminded of some of the crueller effects of international “generosity,” for students baffled by the complex realities of such a bewildering part of the world, and for anyone unaware of the appalling horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

Given his left-wing pedigree and the immediate audience for these lectures, Lewis’ analysis is relatively simple and obvious.  The immediate culprits include international financial institutions who impose crippling conditions on loans to countries already in dire straits thanks to previous loans to corrupt governments (a doctrine Lewis calls “capitalist Stalinism”), the G8 countries who will not live up to their modest commitments (0.7 of GDP, a figure established by Lester Pearson in the 1960’s), the food subsidies paid to farmers in developed countries, the poaching of trained personnel from countries facing desperate shortages of doctors, nurses, engineers, and teachers.  And so on.   It’s a familiar list.  But Lewis keeps his analysis incisive and interesting by providing details of his own personal involvement in the story and by his urgent passion, which decades of frustration have clearly (and amazingly) not blunted in the slightest.

But the political slant which energizes his critique is also its gravest shortcoming.  Certain problems Lewis will simply not acknowledge, especially the role played by many corrupt or inefficient African governments.  When Africa is losing around 150 billion dollars a year to corruption (an estimate by the African Union in 2002),  it’s surely not enough to cope with this issue by commenting dismissively that, well, we have our Sponsorship scandal, too, as if that Canadian sleaze is in any way comparable to the endemic theft savagely crippling so many nations.  His own analysis suggests repeatedly that critical problems stem inevitably from many uncaring political and bureaucratic elites (to use the politest terms available). 

One can, of course, blame all this on colonialist policies in the past or argue that the corruption is an inevitable part of a vicious cycle (bribery will be endemic in a civil service which is paid very little because too much money has to go to service past debts, and so on), but the fact remains that helping Africa with large-scale international aid packages is often (perhaps even generally) rendered far less effective, even, at times, counter productive, by bureaucratic officials, corporate special interests, and the Africans themselves.

And there’s a lack of practical political common sense underlying much of the attack.  Yes, it is rhetorically effective to point out that every cow in Europe is subsidized to the tune of about two dollars a day, whereas between four and five hundred million Africans live on less than one.  But that cow has owners, and those owners have votes.  No European government concerned about domestic stability and its own survival is going to remove farm subsidies easily in order to foster foreign economies, not unless there’s a sizable bloc of votes exerting very strong pressure on it to do so (comparable to, say, the voters in America who support aid to Israel).

Many African countries no doubt suffer from the fact that the world’s superpowers do not see them as a major strategic or economic priority in comparison with, say, the Middle East.  That may display a lack of humanitarian compassion and even be short sighted, given the spread of Islamic terrorism in Africa and the West’s dependence on oil, but it’s a political fact (reinforced no doubt by racist attitudes as well).  But to expect western governments (many of whom cannot adequately deal with their own poor and face increasing threats of urban unrest) to provide even more money to solve endemic problems in far-away countries (not just Africa) is surely as naïve as expecting major financial institutions not to be preoccupied with the bottom line and spontaneously to donate some of their profits out of the goodness of their hearts, over the objections of their shareholders.

This element of the analysis also affects Lewis’ familiar recommendations, which include, among other things, more foreign aid, forgiveness of debt, a stronger commitment by the international community through the UN to equality for women, a more charitable attitude by the big money institutions—in short, a much more generous and energetic dedication to achieving the Millennium Development Goals through the usual international channels.

But, quite apart from the frankly utopian nature of some of these proposals, one has to wonder about Gresham’s Law. If, as Lewis concedes, for the past few decades foreign aid to Africa has frequently been extraordinarily inefficient (only 40 percent of the money getting to the people in need, according to Lewis, a number which seems rather high in comparison with other studies), if the UN record of administering massive aid in Africa or dealing with money generally is in many respects a sorry one, then why should we re-dedicate ourselves to even more of the same?  Is this approach really helping African nations solve their most basic problems? Do we have any reason to believe that twenty years from now with additional trillions of dollars spent, we will not be calling attention to the very same things?

I have no answer to such questions, and I do wish I were more sanguine about Lewis’ proposals, both about their feasibility and their effectiveness.  The same is true of any number of other solutions proposed.  And there are scores of them—capitalists want more capitalism in Africa, African leaders want more African solutions, some liberals want more democracy, others want military interventions, still others want the West to leave Africa alone, and so on.  It’s difficult to work one’s way through even a few of the very different options.

What does seem clear, however, is that until there is a much more reliable and honest and efficient infrastructure of government in Africa and more respect for law and personal freedom not much is going to change.  Massive injections of aid will have some vitally important short-term effects (and given the ongoing devastations of AIDS, no one should be in doubt about these priorities), but much of the money will be squandered by UN inefficiency and government greed and corruption all around.  That’s what the history of past decades tells us. Meanwhile, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, famine, and civil war will continue, with a deadly bird flu just around the corner.

The story of how African nations manage to establish the basic conditions necessary for them to deal with their own problems (what Paul Theroux, in an intriguing comparison of Malawi and Ireland, identifies as “education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence”)  is almost certainly not, as Lewis suggests, a race against time (I wish it were) but a tragedy which will continue to march to its own rhythms, and it’s probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  He is right to be appalled by what he sees, writes about so well, and calls to our attention.  He is doubly right in urging us to care and, where possible, to act.  But it’s difficult to see an effective “solution” in what he proposes.

Surely what we have to offer in the West, more than anything else, is our scientific and medical expertise and our charity (in the best sense of the word).   So Bill Gates’ massive contributions to fight tuberculosis and AIDS are something we should applaud.  Perhaps other very rich people who do not have to deal with voters or stockholders or political leaders will follow suit.  Those with smaller disposable incomes (like myself) might well start thinking about increasing their more modest contributions to specific local enterprises.  Certainly we should support cancellation of African debt (as long as that debt remains, we are still interfering in the most deleterious way and making significant recovery virtually impossible).  Perhaps, as Homer Atkins, the Ugly American, urged in 1958, important goals can be achieved by a more energetic commitment to smaller-scale locally initiated projects with Western technical and financial assistance (i.e., from the bottom up rather than the reverse) or by short-term, intensive projects like those described by Dr. Berger in this issue.

But whatever help we provide and however we deal with the appalling and urgent AIDS crisis, in the last analysis the leaders attending pan-African conferences are right in the various resolutions they have adopted stressing that African nations are going to have to find African solutions to their own problems and that that will require, first and foremost, much more honest and efficient political institutions, a task often not made any easier by Western governments and international agencies who, in the process of addressing Africa’s problems, simply compound them with their own self-interested interference.


[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files

View Stats