Interview: Dr. Paul Farmer on making civic engagement a reality

By Katie Havranek and Marissa Warden

After the opening convocation, The Mac Weekly had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Farmer and ask him these questions:The Mac Weekly: For people who can’t devote their lives working globally, what can people in Minnesota do to make a difference?

Paul Farmer: Well you know, I think it’s important to remember that Macalester is on the globe too, so the whole notion of .I was going to say “globality” but you might want to check the dictionary on that. But the notion of global is not the same as international, it’s different, so I think that’s the first step: to say ‘hey wait, we fit in here too’ and not to pretend that you aren’t bound to this place for four years. It’s a great place to be. I called it ‘an island of privilege’, but I mean that in the best sense.

You have all the resources you need to really learn. I think that’s one thing that is important to remember, that is, that you are really here to learn about whatever topic. So just one thing is: you’re on the globe, second thing: you know, having an informed generation is a critical part of all the work I was talking about; that was work to ban landmines–I didn’t even say that, but you could tell that’s what I meant; work to promote health care; access to safety or freedom from insecurity of all sorts. You know anybody can be injured in an earthquake, but not just any society is as fragile as Haiti is and as vulnerable to natural disasters, so I think those are important things to lay out there. I gave some very specific examples that I knew from Macalester of people who are working in -I could have gone on-I know that there are people who are working in the Twin Cities, there are people doing service work right here, there are people doing service work in the summer on their breaks, there are people who, as you heard, raise money for Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti after the earthquake so there’s just such a long laundry list.

And finally, I have such a deep respect for student activism. Please put in your article that PIH was founded by student activists during their student years. It was a bunch of young people who said ‘you know, we’re gonna start PIH”.

How do you ensure that Partners in Health stays true to the ideologies on which it was founded?

Well, you know I think that’s not necessarily my job to do that. Maybe, as you call them ‘ideologies on which it was founded’ will change. But I think the core principals are worth reiterating again and again — and remember I said that PIH was founded by student activists and also others, you know. All kinds of people started PIH including, of course, our Haitian co-workers. But I think it’s okay for ideologies to change and I’m not sure how much stock I put into ideologies that, I think, was Owen’s point a little bit. But at the same time, core principles like service to the poor, having autonomy and community based efforts, that’s why you see people like the ones I showed at the end, Carmen and Shela, because there’s a commitment to making sure that people from those communities do this work themselves, and are able to do this work themselves. How would we make sure? Well, one way is to maintain close proximity to the poor. If you listen to them, they will tell you what’s on their mind. I say the poor are -and that’s a disputed term-but people who are facing the kinds of problems that I describe, are only too happy to tell others what’s on their minds. Learning how to listen is a big part of this work.

What do you say to the people who argue that you have dedicated too much of your life to your work and have thus set an impossible standard for the rest of us?

Well you know I don’t have that argument, you know what I mean? I’m not really interested in that argument. I would say maybe you’re right, but what I would focus on is not that kind of argument, but saying no matter how much time you have whether that be one hour a week or 80 hours a week. No matter what you do — whether you’re a student or an investment banker, or a lawyer, or a fireman — no matter what you do, there is a way to service those who are in greater need than you. Those are really the only things I would say, and I wouldn’t have an argument like that.

Regarding Partners in Health, what would you do over if you could?

I think one of the things that would have made us more solid now would have been spending even more time cultivating what we now are calling ‘communities of concern.’ If you get a group of people, say in Chicago, who feel invested in this work and come down to participate and visit, they are going to feel responsibility to keep it going and maybe even growing. We were lucky back in the 80s because we had one donor who was really committed to us, his name was Tom White and now he just turned 90. In a way, he kind of spoiled us for a while. Maybe we should have started that work earlier because we knew we were in it for the long hall. So finding more people who say, ‘Yeah, I believe in this kind of work, I want to be part of it’ whether again, it’s one hour a week or 20 hours a week, or sending a check, or actually spending a year doing the work, developing those communities of concern. I would have done that over a little bit.

What else? I think I would have also tried harder to document some of the first things we were doing-these are called ‘baseline conditions’. Because then showing the impact–measuring the impact–everyone talks about that all the time in philanthropy. What’s the impact? What are the metrics? Well you know, about 30 years ago that’s not really what was on our mind in front of such suffering. Learning how to measure the impact, but I think we could have done that better as well. But we were either young or, for example my Haitian colleagues–most of them had never been to the university. That’s actually a critique that one of my oldest friends and co-workers, Jim Kim and President of Dartmouth said. Jim said that to me in the 90s, that I should have done more to document what was going on in Haiti in the 80s.

By what criteria should Mac students who endeavor to help others in their life evaluate NGOs?

Yeah, I mean that’s a great question I hope you’ll write about this. I think one of the things that NGOs should not do is replace the state, right? So you wouldn’t want Minnesota, which has a strong disability rights movement and good public health–you wouldn’t want that to be replaced by NGOs or charities. So, NGOs have to be careful not to replace the state, and if they are filling the role the public sector should be filling, can they find a way to help rebuild that locally? So that’s a metric that’s hard to measure, but I think that’s very important in Haiti. They’re not adding up to the sum of their parts– they’re not adding up the sum of their parts in part because they haven’t learned how to help the Haitian people and the Haitian public sector, that is public education and public health. They haven’t done enough to promote those sectors-it’s quite extreme in Haiti. Now Rwandans have demanded that. They have demanded that NGOs be part of their plan for development and recovery. And I think NGOs should do more, try harder to be part of local plans.