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Paul Farmer on Haiti and Global Health Issues

By Jean André Constant

Submitted to AlterPresse on August 2, 2006

On June 16th, 2006 from 5 to 7 PM, the scholar and humanist Paul Farmer well-known for his commitment to Haiti and his prolific publications regarding health issues and US foreign policies (among others), was the guest of Yale University for the 11th International Festival Arts and Ideas in New Haven. Mr. Farmer’s presentation at Woolsey Hall was formatted as an academic dialogue and took place with one of Yale University’s Professors. Therefore, they reminded their vast audience of the old Greco-Latin tradition of Socrates’ teaching as reported by Plato.

Paul Farmers has been involved in health-related and community-based projects in Haiti since the early eighties. Such experiences inspired him to found the NGO “Zanmi Lasante†(Partners in Health) in 1987, primarily based in Plateau Central and providing a wide range of health-related services and programs such as school, clinics mainly centered on TB and HIV, trainings for health outreach workers, a mobile unit that screens residents of area villages for preventable diseases and more. Partners in Health has now been extended to six other countries: Boston (US), Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Russia and Rwanda. Those worldwide initiatives have strongly enriched Farmer’s vision of health issues and tailored his academic works centered on inequality and health disparities. With his familiar sense of humor, Paul Farmer responded to delicate questions regarding Katrina’s catastrophe in the US, global health issues and his vision of NGOs in developing countries. His main points were:

- Considering the wealth gap between developed and developing countries, any search for drugs or cure efforts to address international health challenges and concerns related to pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, should be conducted along with strategies to reduce poverty and foster equitable accessibility to health care.

- NGO’s work in developing countries often offers room for foreign and privileged benefactors to reflect some arrogance in their rapport with the recipient countries’ citizens. Farmer looks at the interactions between privileged and underprivileged people as a two-way learning process that requires humility and respect. He urged international NGO staff to listen to and learn from the communities they serve, and to work with them as opposed to working for them.

- NGOs should dialogue and work along with local partners in coordination with the public sector in the countries they serve as to improve their outcomes.

Paul Farmers’ presentation appealed to policy makers, scholars, politicians and communities facing many health and power-related challenges. As he spoke, the conflict between giant global drugs corporations’ interests and the needs of worldwide countless suffering people, dimmed as one of the biggest obstacles to worldwide health equity. As Farmer stated, the solution does not rely on complaining but in mobilizing resources and communities as to face the challenges.

Hartford, Connecticut
Article previously published in Haitian Connecticut Voice