Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Spread the Net

Sharing malaria medication with Belinda Stronach at the Hotel Rwanda is not the strangest experience of my life, but it’s up there.

This was two summers ago and it was near the end of a trip to Africa where we followed Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, as he visited Millennium Village sites, gave speeches, met with aid workers, and lobbied governments. I won’t bother raving about Sachs. Suffice to say the guy is brilliant. Sachs is considered one of the leading economists in the world and he is the only academic to have been repeatedly ranked among the world's most influential people by Time magazine. Basically I have nothing in common with the man.

The entire trip to Africa with Belinda and Sachs was truly surreal. I don’t think an hour went by where I didn’t ask myself how in the hell I got there. Before Africa I didn’t know Belinda at all really. I interviewed her when she was a Tory and between takes it came up that she was a friend of Dr. Sachs. She talked about how brilliant he was and of course I agreed. What she didn’t know was the entire time she talked about Dr. Jeffery Sachs I thought she was talking about Dr. Oliver Sacks the guy who specialized in bizarre brain disorders and was portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings. The more Belinda talked about how much she thought of Sachs and how he helped her out as a policy advisor during her leadership campaign, the stranger I thought Belinda was. I remember thinking “Why in god’s name would she want a world renowned expert on Tourette ’s syndrome to advise her on a leadership run for the Tories?” I knew many Tory MPs at the time were afflicted with the condition but I still found it extreme.

After the interview ended Belinda told me she hoped to go to Africa with Sachs someday and she added “if it ever comes together I’ll give you a call.”

It’s not really the kind of call you actually expect to get – politicians say all sorts of things during small talk – and honestly for the life of me I still didn’t understand why anyone would dream of visiting Africa with an expert on brain disorders.

Later when I realized the mistake I made and what an idiot I was I attempted to remedy the situation by purchasing The End of Poverty by Dr. Jeffery Sachs. It’s a very good read and despite offering no help to victims of Tourette’s, I’d recommend it to anyone.

It was over a year later that Belinda called me up out of the blue – she was heading to Africa and would I like to come? I said yes.

I really had no idea what to expect on such a trip and when I told friends I was going to Africa with Belinda Stronach they immediately dubbed the trip “Belinda’s Pink Champagne Safari”. I tend to hang with a cynical bunch.

The trip was put together in record time. I was at the airport before I really found out where we were going. When I saw the list of countries we were visiting it might as well have been titled “places Rick has never wanted to go.” Rwanda was on the list. As home of one of the worst genocides in recent history it was not a destination hot spot in my mind. Ethiopia? Not once in my life did I utter the phrase “I’d like to visit Ethiopia someday.” The port of Djibouti was on the list and not being sure where it actually was I googled it and the first entry I came across described the port as “living hell on earth.” This was not a Pink Champagne Safari.

I had no idea what to expect and it was just as well because nothing would have prepared me. A constant theme of anyone who writes about Africa is the extremes you experience and I was no different.

In Uganda for example we spent a day in a village where 5,000 people are living in extreme poverty. And really even calling it a village doesn’t do it justice. The word village has a western connotation that doesn’t apply here. Spending a day touring a “village” makes most of us think of a day wasted looking at antique shops and having to suffer the indignity of staying in a bed and breakfast run by batty English people.

This wasn’t the case here. This “village” had practically no shelter, no water supply, no fuel, near impassible roads, no communications infrastructure, no market and very little in the way of food.

And if one forgot for a second the inequity of the situation it was driven home by the evening’s agenda: visiting the palatial home of the president of Uganda and watching Sachs and the President hammer out a seven point aid agreement.

I’d be lying of I said it wasn’t a little hard on the head to spend the day with kids who have never had a real meal in their lives and then spend the evening with some dude who wears a gold hat and has a piano that plays itself.

I swore before I went to Africa that when I came back I wouldn’t be transformed into a hemp wearing dullard armed with a thousand statistics aimed at depressing everyone around me and ruining whatever occasion I happened to be attending.

I did know that it would have some affect on me and of course it did.

For my entire life I’ve been pretty good at spotting a problem but not so clever at coming up with the right answers. And if the truth be told, quite often when faced with an overwhelming problem, I’m content to believe that the situation is beyond help and then it’s off to the pub.

This is why getting to know a guy like Dr Jeffery Sachs is so dangerous. He’s an answer guy, and when you learn the answers and in some case you see how simple they are, it’s hard not to get on board.

Which brings me to the “spread the net” campaign.

In Africa over a million kids die of malaria every year. That’s pretty overwhelming. It was Sachs however that told us that it really doesn’t need to be that way. The answer is simple, tangible, old fashioned and cost effective. One of the best tools to fight Malaria is a mosquito bed net. The net goes over the bed and usually two or three kids will sleep under the thing. The net is treated with insecticide and will continue to do its job for over five years. If you buy a kid a net, there’s a pretty good chance you can save one or two lives. And the cost? Ten bucks.

That’s what Spreadthenet.org is all about. If you go to spreadthenet.org you can give ten bucks and a mosquito bed net will be purchased and distributed for free in the first two targeted countries – Liberia and Rwanda.

And really can anyone think of a better way for Canadians to lend a hand – Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. If there is a war that Canadians can get behind it’s the war on mosquitoes. We spend enough of our time coming up with ways to kill them at home, let’s spread the love in Africa.

So at the risk of coming across like the dullard armed with statistics, this past week I went to Montreal with Belinda Stronach and together we launched the Spread the Net campaign. Dr. Sachs was there with us and at the press conference he spoke about Malaria and Bed Nets in a way that I never could.

It was a big success. The web site ( www.spreadthenet.org ) is simple and straight forward. Everyone seems to like the idea and its simplicity. One net, ten bucks, save a life. Belinda worked the phones like a maniac and we were in a position to announce that $300 000 had already been raised. That’s a lot of nets!

We all know that Canadians have a huge capacity for helping out others less fortunate and already lots of people are coming forward with ideas on how individuals, groups, businesses, churches and universities can help spread the net.

The campaign launch was a great result of an unexpected trip. But I have to admit, my favorite moment was as surreal as the trip itself. There was Dr. Sachs, one of the world’s leading economists, a man who spends every waking hour trying to understand the big problems of the world – and then providing the answers.

He spoke passionately and eloquently about how we can make a difference in Africa. And when it was over and he had finished speaking, there was a pause, and the first question asked was about Ralph Klein and cracks he made about Belinda’s sex life.

The look on his face was one of total bewilderment.

Any comment Dr. Sachs?

For once he didn’t have an answer.