My main event in September was the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GF) replenishment meeting in Montreal. This took place on a Friday and Saturday in the middle of the month. To get there, I took the train from Kitchener to Toronto and changed for Montreal. The journey took from 9 am to about 5 pm and was incredibly productive; I got through a mountain of reading. The rail service in Canada is a great way to travel. It is not fast but the trains are comfortable, there is an ‘at seat service’ for tea, coffee or meals, and it is a good place to read, work and generally chill.
I was officially invited by Marie-Claude Bibeau, who is the Liberal Minister of International Development and La Francophonie (I am not yet certain what the last part of the title means). She and the Minister of Health, Jane Philpot, both have international experience having worked in West Africa. This is extremely refreshing to find in senior political leadership. The cost of my trip was covered by AIDSpan, a Kenyan based NGO which fulfils the function of ‘a friendly watchdog’ over the GF.
The NGO produces the Global Fund Observer every two weeks and this is widely read. I am on the Board and we try to have two face-to-face meetings a year, with more frequent telephone conversations. The Board was supposed to meet in Nairobi in November, but as the Executive Director and I were both going to Montreal, and the third person, James Deutsch, is based in Seattle, I suggested we do our meeting after the replenishment. This saved both time and a considerable amount of money. We met on Sunday morning, worked for six hours and got through the entire agenda in a measured and constructive manner. Everyone was very pleased; especially James, who effectively had to travel for two days instead of four. It was also an example of good governance which is important when we seek future funding for the organisation.
The hotel we used was booked by the ED, and sadly hotel booking websites are a bit like dating ones (I am told). The pictures and descriptions are not accurate. It was OK but only just. It is, to my mind, quite bizarre that North American hotels pack their space with beds – two king sized ones in my room. This means the room in theory will sleep four people, which is very odd, and I don’t think there is enough air! Of course the rooms are also sealed: there is an air-conditioner/heater but no way to get any fresh air. Quite bizarre. There was a perceptible aura of shabbiness about the place, which extended to the breakfast buffet. The toaster was a ‘do it yourself’ one which is fine but the sliced bread was left in the plastic bags for guests to open and help themselves.
The majority of the guests were strikingly over-weight, badly dressed and miserable and impoverished looking Canadians. It was so noticeable that I asked the hotel staff about it and was told that these people were bused down to Montreal from the reserves for medical care. There are not enough hospitals or specialist services in Northern Quebec. The provincial government has an arrangement with the hotel so that patients who do not require inpatient care stay there – presumably with their families. This also explained why everyone looked stressed and depressed. To be ill is miserable; to be away from home as well must be awful.
The GF meeting itself was very good. The goal was to raise $13 billion for the next three years. At the end of the meeting we were told that they had almost succeeded. Afterward friends confirmed this and said, in addition that new commitments over the next few months would take the total to beyond the target. What was most interesting was the pledging process where countries and organisations announced formally how much they were committing. This was hosted in a remarkably efficient manner by former BBC journalist Henry Bonsu. We talked in the dining room after the event and he told me a bit of his story. His parents were among the Ghanaians sent to the UK for university educations by Kwame Nkrumah after Independence. Unfortunately the politics meant they could not return, so they have spent their lives as ‘exiles’ and their children are British! Henry is a professional media consultant and conference host: the first person I have met who is in this line of work.
The US remains by far the largest donor, followed by the UK. There were also pledges made by Foundations and companies. I was told that some delegates were on the phone with their governments right up to the last minute. Thus, to some extent, it was like an auction, except that instead of buying people were vying to give. I enjoy these events because this is really my community. I don’t even mind sitting through the boring, repetitive presentations and endless debate, it is important to support the cause and there are always nuggets of information to be gleaned. It is policy and philanthropy in action: the challenge is to make sure that the greatest good is achieved with the resources. There are also people I have known for a very long time whom I otherwise meet very rarely: the networking which is such fun. For example, one of the first people to see AIDS cases in the Zimbabwe region was a doctor with the Salvation Army in Harare – this must have been over 25 years ago, I have not seen him for decades. He reminded me of our early meetings.
Of course there are also celebrities who are associated with the cause. In the case of this meeting, Bill Gates, Ban Ki Moon and Bono were on the stage at various times. The Canadians were the official hosts and did an excellent job. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was very present along with his ministers and I had a chance to thank him for the work the new government has done. On the first day there was an ‘invitation only’ consultation with the Canadian government, which involved both the Minister of Health and the Minster of International Development. The end of the meeting was marked by a concert in the Bell Centre arena. The stars were not people I knew: Usher; Roots; Grimes; Half Moon Run and Charlotte Cardin. My Canadian colleagues were excited by this. I felt uniformed and of a different generation.
Books and Films
John Irving, “Avenue of Mysteries”, Knopf Canada, 2015, 480 pages. This is the story of Juan Diego Guerrero who grew up on a Mexican rubbish dump with his sister – who could read minds and who comes to a strange end in a circus. The story is narrated, partly as a series of dreams. As an adult, the author Juan Diego is a famous writer, and professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In this book he is under the influence of two women, a mother and daughter – both of whom he sleeps with. The dreams which are in turn influenced by the two prescription drugs he use: Viagra and Lopressor, a beta-blocker. One reviewer said: ‘from the first page to the last, there is a goodness to this novel … this belief, combined with good old-fashioned storytelling, is surely why Irving is so often described as Dickensian’. (Sunday Book Review, Tayari Jones, 25th November 2015). I found it really tedious, but broke my rule of reading the ends of books that don’t please me. As a result, when I found that Juan Diego dies of a heart attack on the last page, I thought this was entirely appropriate.
“Hell or High Water” is a really good film. It is set in West Texas and began with a bank robbery. The thieves are brothers who target Texas Midlands branches. One is a hardened criminal, the other, a boy who is in a desperate situation with the family farm about to be repossessed by the bank (Texas Midland). Additionally he is separated from his wife, and owes a huge amount of maintenance for his children. The goal is to steal enough money to redeem the loan. The film is exciting, well-acted and illustrates a moral dilemma. In the denouement the wild boy is killed; the other escapes and reclaims the family home for his ex-wife and children, although we learn that he does not live there with them. The Texas Ranger, who spends the film in pursuit of them is played by Jeff Bridges and is really excellent. I strongly recommend it as not just entertainment but also as portraying a moral dilemma.