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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dr. Paul Farmer Talks the Talk, but Fails to Walk the Walk by Stanley Lucas

Dr. Farmer gets a lot of the issues right in his book, "Haiti After the Earthquake", including one of his central points: public and private aid has bypassed Haitian institutions further weakening the country and the government to the point where it was unable to even respond to the earthquake.  This is the primary reason why Haiti has come to be known as the "Republic of NGOs".  Dr. Farmer also correctly points out that some NGOs do this intentionally (to keep getting their funding) and some unintentionally.  This process of bypassing of Haitian institutions is truly the central reason that the more than $20 billion in aid Haiti has received over the past few decades has really left no lasting mark on the country.

However, Dr. Farmer seems to try to have it both ways.  While he recognizes that bypassing Haitian institutions is a critical problem and touts his and President Clinton’s efforts to promote greater direct support for the Haitian government, including financially, his organization, Partners in Health, is the largest healthcare provider in Haiti.  How’s that for bypassing Haitian institutions?  The senior representatives at the Haitian Ministry of Health note that Dr. Farmer’s group built a kitchen in the state hospital and some medicine and equipments, but that’s all he’s done.  His hospitals and clinics all operate under the banner of Partners in Health, and his funding goes directly into those institutions rather than through the Ministry.  His plans now include building a massive teaching hospital in Haiti, but will operate it as Partners in Health, rather than under the banner of the Haitian Ministry.  To the Ministry’s knowledge, he has never provided any sort of technical assistance or institution building programs for the Ministry. 

While he advocates for greater strengthening of and direct funding for Haitian institutions, he has not funneled any of the $80 million in donations for earthquake recovery that he was granted into the Ministry.  He received tens of millions of dollars in funding from USAID and the UN Special Envoy’s office, led by President Clinton, where he serves as the Deputy Special Envoy (seems to be a conflict of interest there?).  In short, Dr. Farmer talks the talk in Haiti, but does not walk the walk.

Finally, and most disturbingly, Dr. Farmer turns partisan in this book.  He is an unabashed advocate of former President Aristide.  Again, given his role as UN Deputy Special Envoy, this seems to be a conflict of interest.  The Haitian people actually forced President Aristide out of Haiti in 2004 because they were fed up with his corruption and violence.  The Haitian Government Accounting Office estimates that Aristide departed Haiti with more than $350 million in stolen government funds see: .  

Aristide has never been held accountable, and in fact, returned to Haiti shortly after the earthquake.  The people were so happy he was returning that they ransacked his home the night he arrived taking everything from the mangoes on the trees to the bed linens.  How’s that for a welcome home?  Dr. Farmer’s partisanship in Haiti is cause for great concern among many Haitians, particularly given his role at the UN and his dominance in the healthcare sector. 

Aside from Dr. Farmer’s questionable political intentions, no one can deny the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions.  Dr. Farmer quite clearly loves Haitian culture and the Haitian people.  He has done a lot of good in the country, including making an enormous contribution to combating AIDS and the provision of health services, particularly in remote regions.  He speaks fluent Creole and is married to Haitian woman who is truly a force of nature in her advocacy for women in Haiti and healthcare.  There’s no doubt that he’s made a real difference in the lives of thousands of Haitians. 

So in the end, it seems this review wants to have it both ways too.  As a Haitian, I admire and appreciate Dr. Farmer’s work – and am deeply touched by his love for my country.  As someone who is frustrated by aid organizations bypassing Haitian institutions, I am disturbed and discouraged by how he has operated his NGO in Haiti.  And, as someone who has personally seen and experienced the violence of President Aristide, I am outraged by his partisanship.