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African success story?


The Stephen Lewis Foundation upends our notions of development and charity

The Stephen Lewis Foundation is a Canadian-based aid agency turning charity on its head. In supporting grassroots organizations fighting the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, SLF reverses the traditional charity dynamic that sees Western experts helping hapless Africans. Instead, the foundation takes its cue from people doing amazing work on the frontlines: The Africans are the experts. They need money and access to resources, certainly; they don’t need our help.

The flip side to that approach, in terms of Canadians funding the foundation, is equally untraditional. Don’t give money because you feel sad and guilty, because you feel you have too much. Give because you want more. Africans aren’t the beneficiaries; we are.

“There is an extraordinary amount of suffering and death and struggle,” says Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of SLF. “That’s the reality of AIDS in Africa. But people in the communities, in grassroots projects, are doing an extraordinary amount with very little.

“The communities are coming up with sophisticated, innovative strategies, amazing ways of counselling one another, supporting one another, trying to build a future for the kids.”

One example can stand for the more than 300 projects funded by the foundation: GAPA (Grannies against Poverty and AIDS) in Cape Town, South Africa began in 2001, one of many self-help groups that sprang up. African grandmothers care for millions of children orphaned by AIDS. They bury their adult children and then take care of as many as 10 to 15 grandchildren. Many grandmothers are HIV-positive themselves.

“In these groups of grandmothers,” says Landsberg-Lewis, “one of them will tell her story and she’ll start crying. All of the other grandmothers start to sing. And they sing and they sing and they sing. They sing until she can join in.” Out of this kind of informal counselling an incredible regional support network has developed. GAPA is setting up schools for the kids so that the grandmothers have time and energy to support them; it’s establishing workshops on growing food, generating income, parenting, sex and sexuality and human rights.

“Because the grandmothers are no longer worried about getting the kids in school, no longer worried about where the next meal will come from — it’s not perfect, there is still not enough support — they’ve become activists. Now they talk about how they have to reach all the grandmothers in southern Africa…. Now they talk about elder abuse and violence against women, they talk about access to pensions and access to rights and all of this stuff. A huge transformation.”

“We should be helping because this is the story of the triumph of the human spirit over the most extraordinary obstacles.”

A labour and human rights lawyer who spent eight years working at the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Landsberg-Lewis has two kids and is married to singer Lorraine Segato. Landsberg-Lewis is the daughter of author and activist Michele Landsberg and former UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis. She and her father started SLF in 2003.

SLF is built on a streamlined communication and assessment system. Prior to funding, field representatives, mainly African women with strong experience in community organizing, visit every project. There are follow-up visits if the project is funded. Canadian-based project officers also keep in regular contact. The growth of effective grandmother networks in Africa speaks to the foundation’s openness and flexibility.

Landsberg-Lewis remembers how in 2005, her father would return from Africa talking about these informal groups of older women. At the time Landsberg-Lewis was getting proposals from SLF projects for programs on parenting and care giving. A light went on. She called up the projects to ask if they were talking about grandmothers. “And they all said, every one of them, ‘Of course it’s grandmothers,’ like we were crazy and ridiculous. For them it was just such a given.

“But the projects themselves hadn’t thought of grandmothers as people for whom they could raise funds. They didn’t think anyone would be interested.

“That’s what I mean about learning, paying very close attention and letting projects and the people in them tell you what’s happening.”

Landsberg-Lewis wants to avoid the bureaucratic inflexibility of many large, more traditional aid and development agencies, with their focus on measuring results. She stresses the need to follow the money: The foundation must know if monies are being used effectively; they must maintain the trust of Canadian donors (50 percent of the foundation’s budget comes from individual donors and fundraisers). But Landsberg-Lewis demands a more sophisticated notion of results.

“In the context of HIV and AIDS, a result can be that when a young woman dies, her children know what’s going to happen, that they know before she dies it’s okay to hug her and kiss her, that they know how the virus is contracted so that they are not afraid to touch her, that there’s a counsellor at the ready and a grandmother waiting to step in…. How do you measure that?”

When you think of Africa, do you think of triumph? Of joy and victory? There’s a holocaust happening. It’s not going away any time soon. But the folks at SLF zero in on glimmers of hope and tiny successes; they find there a road map to ever greater success.

“What we’re really saying to Canadians is don’t give because it’s such a sad story, don’t give because we’ve managed to pull on your heart strings, or you feel bad,” says Landsberg-Lewis. “Actually join us in this. The reason to give is because there is such extraordinary work going on. There’s so much courage. And there’s so much hope in spite of the difficulty. We should be helping because this is the story of the triumph of the human spirit over the most extraordinary obstacles.

“It’s a real privilege to support them. [People working in these projects] often say thank you to us. And always I say, no, in fact we feel deeply honoured and privileged to be able to support this kind of work.”