Creating Future Farmers
Q & A with Commencement speaker Paul Farmer

One need only look at the titles of Paul Farmer’s books—Infections and Inequalities, Pathologies of Power—to understand that he views disease and poverty as twin scourges caused by disparate social systems.

“Disease,” he sometimes says, “shows a preferential option for the poor. And so we must as well.”

As a physician, medical anthropologist, and infectious disease expert, Farmer doesn’t mince words when it comes to ways in which “the most basic right—the right to survive—is trampled in an age of great affluence.” He regularly places himself among the poorest of the poor, providing care to ill prisoners, refugees, and Haitian villagers who walk for days to his rural clinics to see “Dokté Paul.”

Still, Farmer remains almost incongruously upbeat, a pragmatic optimist who appears utterly fulfilled by the most difficult work. His books, speeches, even his website, seem attempts to explain to everyone else what he sees all too clearly: so many of these deaths and illnesses are preventable.

The world, Farmer writes, has arrived at a point where collectively we have the wealth, the tools, and the technology to prevent this level of suffering; we lack only the will.

The forty-seven-year-old Farmer is founding director of Partners in Health (PIH), an international health care and advocacy group whose vision statement is, “Whatever it takes.” He has received countless honors and awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant. He has developed innovative and effective methods to combat modern plagues such as AIDS and drug-resistant TB. But he is perhaps best known as the subject of author Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, which follows the good doctor from Harvard, where he is a professor and attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, to his charity hospital, Clinique Bon Sauveur, in Cange, Haiti, where he cares for residents of the mountainous Central Plateau.

After Farmer was named keynote speaker at Emory’s 2007 Commencement, students designating themselves “Future Farmers of America” distributed two thousand copies of Kidder’s book around campus from the back of a golf cart. “I was hoping that everyone could make the transition, as I had, from having no idea who he was to reading the book and becoming a ‘Future Farmer,’ ” says Drew Harbur 07C, who started the publicity blitz.

A few days before arriving in Atlanta, Farmer spoke with Emory Magazine.

EM: Where are you spending most of your time now?

Farmer: We’re actually based in Rwanda right now, working on a new, big PIH project. We started there in 2005 at the invitation of the government, and the Clinton Foundation has donated money to fight AIDS there. But I travel to Haiti and to Boston frequently. In fact, last night, I went to my first-ever rock concert. This hip young indie band, the Arcade Fire, is giving a dollar of every ticket they sell to PIH. Thousands of people showed up; it was a sold-out concert. When I confessed I had never been to a rock concert, the lead singer gave me earplugs. It was harsh.

EM: Why has much of your focus been on Haiti? What took you there, and why did you stay and build the clinic?

Farmer: Happenstance brought me there, and youth—when I first went to Haiti in the 1980s, I was the age of a lot of the people who are graduating at the University on Monday. It was going to a place of extremity—extreme beauty, history, culture, poverty. All those together marked me permanently.

EM: A volunteer at Clinique Bon Sauveur writes in her blog that Cange is about ten degrees cooler than the rest of Haiti because of all the trees you’ve planted there over the past two decades. Did you ever think that you were creating your own metaphor?

Farmer: Once it’s really growing, it’s not a metaphor; it’s flesh.

EM: Are you still able to stay in Haiti, with the current instability?

Farmer: I was just there, but I took some precautions. I flew to Central Haiti in a tiny plane, instead of driving on the roads. This is the nature of the work. Work in Rwanda has made me very respectful of how important security is. But it doesn’t matter if it’s safe, we have to do it anyway.

EM: Your daughter [with wife, anthropologist Didi Bertrand] is nine now. What does she want to do when she grows up?

Farmer: Yes, Catherine. She doesn’t know yet, sometimes she wants to be an artist, sometimes she wants to start an orphanage. She says some amazing things. She was at a meeting with me the other day, ignoring us and reading. This guy was talking a mile a minute about environmental concerns and carbon footprints, and she looked up and said, how do you measure a carbon footprint?

EM: Having planted thousands of trees, you must be in pretty good shape there.

Farmer: I’ve actually been told that in two plane trips to Rwanda or Siberia, I’ve ruined my contributions. It’s the conundrum of the green issue. But how else are you supposed to get from here to there?

EM: What would you say is the main factor that makes the rich richer and the poor more prone to violence and disease: greed, corruption, complacency, or fear?

Farmer: Obviously, there has been a lot of greed and corruption in human history. But seismic social events don’t need massive greed or corruption, just a little bit to grease the wheels. Complacency becomes the dominant force—and the antidote to complacency is community organizing.—M.J.L.



© 2007 Emory University