Paul Farmer | Rebuilding Haiti

The 2010 Arthur Miller Lecture on Science and Ethics
Sponsored by the P
rogram in Science, Technology, and Society
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"One thing is clear: There is always a role for the
promotion of basic rights, like the right to health care.
The trick is how to do this in the field..."

— Paul Farmer

A path to real recovery in Haiti
Difficult as it is to look beyond the acute misery of Haiti’s current crisis, Paul Farmer (anthropologist, physician, and co-founder of Partners in Health) proposes that aid agencies and others concerned with rebuilding focus on the nation’s “chronic problems.” There’s no shortage of recovery ideas, he says, but these will go nowhere if they do not also advance the long-neglected, basic rights of Haitians.

The situation now
Farmer describes efforts to respond to Haiti’s disastrous earthquake of January 2010, which killed hundreds of thousands, left 1.3 million homeless and much of the capital in ruins. Today, nearly a year later, the generous pledges of international aid have yet to materialize, says Farmer, and the peril has expanded to include a cholera outbreak. This picture is all the bleaker for the deaths of many of Farmer’s collaborators. The earthquake destroyed invaluable “human infrastructure”, says Farmer, including all the nursing students at Haiti’s one public nursing school. 

Engage the public sector
Farmer has been working in Haiti for more than a decade, attempting to address not just malnutrition, HIV and tuberculosis, but larger issues such as Haitians’ lack of access to clean water, public education and healthcare. He would like to see international aid groups and foreign powers involved with Haiti recognize these issues in a meaningful way. Farmer’s long-standing strategy has been to engage Haiti’s public sector, or what remains after years of military and U.S. proxy rule, in the fight for these rights. He says, “There is always a role for the promotion of basic rights…The question is how to do this in the field, not just win an argument in seminar.” 

Make common cause to provide basic rights
The earthquake has profoundly deepened Haiti’s need for essential public institutions. The 1,000-plus tent cities housing more than a million people in Port-au-Prince are swelling, not diminishing, because people cannot find potable water anywhere else, and most have no idea where their next meal will come from. Yet there is a push to expel people from their tents and tarps, says Farmer, as if that will somehow speed construction of more permanent residences. Many plans are afoot for such housing, he says—but few that take into account the desires of Haitians, who should have agency in shaping their own future. Rebuilding Haiti, Farmer believes, means “rebuilding aid machinery which is very broken, and often a damaging thing.” He is forging new alliances among Haitians and other aid partners, including Cubans and evangelical groups from the U.S., around water projects, and a new hospital that will be “big, green and public.” Says Farmer, “We must make common cause with those seeking to provide basic rights.”

Suggested Links 

Partners in Health
"At its root our mission is medical and moral. It is based in solidarity, rather than charity alone."

Program in Science, Technology, and Society 
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences  

More at MIT World

Story about Paul Farmer at MIT News