Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, the executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the daughter of Stephen Lewis—the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and deputy executive director of UNICEF—remembers her father’s mood on a family vacation shortly after he was appointed the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
“Something in him had shifted,” Landsberg-Lewis says. “My dad has devoted his whole life to social justice issues, but I’ll never forget it; he acted like a person haunted. He couldn’t shake off what he’d seen. The agony, despair, and sorrow he’d seen in country after country, village after village, left him deeply mournful and shaken.”
Her father, she explains, “wanted to do more to ease the pain of the people affected by or infected with HIV/AIDS at the community level. The idea for a foundation had been ruminating for months when we agreed to meet in New York.” At that time, Landsberg-Lewis, a former labour- and human-rights lawyer, had just returned to Toronto after giving up her job at the United Nations Development Fund for Women, commonly known as UNIFEM, where she had been the agency’s advisor on the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Then, in 2003, around Landsberg-Lewis’s kitchen table, the Stephen Lewis Foundation was born, with both Lewis and Landsberg-Lewis on board. “It seemed very important to my dad that I do this with him,” she says. While at first resistant to putting his own name on the foundation, Lewis was finally convinced that his reputation would be an asset when raising funds for the grassroots organizations with which the foundation would partner.
And so Landsberg-Lewis moved to Toronto to be the executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The foundation was created with the express purpose of putting much-needed funds directly into the hands of the community-based organizations working on the front lines to combat the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Originally, it hoped to raise a few thousand dollars for those grassroots organizations in greatest need; but 10 years later, the foundation has funded more than 700 initiatives and partnered with 300 community-based organizations in the 15 sub-Saharan countries that were hit the hardest by the pandemic. “Our fundamental and guiding principle is that the communities best understand the dimensions of the pandemic and what is needed,” Landsberg-Lewis says. “Those who are most affected understand their own community’s needs in ways that we cannot, so we take our cue from what the projects tell us they need. We don’t presume to know better.”
By the Numbers
Annual number of orphans who received funding for school supplies, uniforms, and fees; nutrition programs; medical care; and critical psychosocial support
Funds committed for program spending
Funds raised for grandmothers in Africa who are raising orphaned grandchildren
The Stephen Lewis Foundation primarily focuses on five areas: children affected or orphaned by HIV/AIDS, the grandmothers raising them, associations of people living with HIV and AIDS, home-based health care, and the intersection of sexual violence and HIV/AIDS.
From the start, the foundation was determined to partner with organizations utilizing gender analysis and addressing gender inequality, which Landsberg-Lewis says is something that is too often neglected, despite the fact that girls and women are hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Globally, young women aged 15–24 have HIV infection rates twice as high as young men and account for 31 percent of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa.
The biggest obstacle, however, that the Stephen Lewis Foundation encounters—as does every organization doing similar work—is a lack of resources. The most maddening thing about this is that Landsberg-Lewis knows that if there were adequate funding, it would be possible to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS on the continent. Oftentimes, especially with the large funders, not a lot of the money gets to the places that need it the most. And with the global economic downturn and major funders pulling back—or out altogether—the need to support the work at the community level is even more urgent.
“We will continue to find even more ways to amplify the voices and realities of the real African experts on HIV and AIDS—the people wrestling every day at the front lines of the pandemic,” says Landsberg-Lewis. “We’re not on the ground facing the challenges of these grassroots organizations. No matter how long you do this work, how you do it should only be determined by the real experts in the field—those who are on the ground. And all of the progress made is because of these experts working with diligence and courage in their own communities every day.”