Dr. Paul Farmer, in my opinion, is one of the most extraordinary persons I have ever heard of, and I have learned more from his story and biography of what it means to give your heart to the poor and vulnerable than any other person I have come across in my readings. His dedication to serving the poor is infectious and he shares with us important insight into what is most effective and just when it comes to improving the quality of life for people of poor economical, social, and political environments–such as those victims of the Haiti earthquake.
What strikes me most about Dr. Paul Farmer, is his ability to see into the hearts and souls of his patients. When he treats patients, his priority is not to diagnose and administer some “magic bullet” cure that will clear up an infection or illness. Rather his primary focus is on the underlying structures and institutions that have led to such a devastating presence of disease and malnutrition in an entire country. The deeper and broader social issues at play are what Farmer emphasizes are indispensable to any form of public health or social just work. His organization Partners in Health are orientated towards thinking this way when they treat patients in Haiti, and often Farmer admits that many of his patients come to him not for medical treatment, but for non-medical requests, such as whether he can help secure an education for their children, or whether they could help them find a job? Farmer notes that in an absence of addressing this broader social concerns, public health works will have little long-term successful consequences.
So what are the five immediate public health actions that should be implemented in the securing and rebuilding of Haiti in the next few years? In Farmer’s opinion, it is that foreign aid needs to consist of less monetary “charity” donations in exchange for a greater number of people actually engaging with patients and citizens on a regular basis. Taking the time to listen to patient’s medical and non-medical needs can help alleviate both the immediate and long-term effects of a devastating natural disaster and a fringed economy. In particular, Farmer addressed the five things we have learned as it pertains to foreign aid from the Haitian Disaster:
1. Jobs are everything: without jobs, Haitians can’t meet basics needs of food and water.
2. Don’t starve the Haitian government: international community doesn’t know what’s best for Haitians, they do.
3. Give Haitians something to go home to and fight for: give the people the power to own their own homes
4. Waste not, want not: reconstruct how aid gets distributed to countries in need
5. Relief is the easy part; reconstruction of a strong economy and spirit people is the hard part: bringing relief is only 5% of fixing the problem. The other 95% lies in efforts to rebuild a strong economical and social country.
Ultimately, Paul Farmer’s reflection on what we have learned from the Haitian disaster serves as a platform on how our attitude should be directed towards helping the poor and vulnerable. Much of what we have learned from Haiti falls within the realms of Liberation Theology, which very much emphasizes the a personal relationship with the poor as well as empowers the most devastated to share their insight into how to strengthen and rebuild their community.