18 January 2013

Who is the Real Paul Farmer?

An article by freelance journalist Ansel Herz for Counterpunch recounts his meetings with the PIH co-founder over the past few years to tell of a Farmer who has become the "useful idiot" for Bill Clinton and the UN.
“Oh, he adores Clinton,” a senior member of Partner in Health, told me as our plane approached the Haitian coastline. “I don’t get it.” 
It was March 2012. By chance, our seats on the flight to Port-au-Prince happened to be next to each other. We’d struck up a conversation. 
She said Paul had changed over the years and that now she represents the “left-wing of PIH.” But the organization had taken a decidedly non-political turn. 
I told her how disappointing it was when PIH had refused to sign on to a petition to protect Haiti’s displaced from forced evictions not long after the quake. She wasn’t surprised. 
The petition was addressed to Bill Clinton, the UN Envoy to Haiti, among other authorities. And Clinton is “close to Paul,” the petitioners were told by Donna Barry, PIH’s Advocacy and Policy Director.
Herz cites examples of Farmer softening prior stances. Farmer opposed plans to provide low-paying textile jobs and was critical of the growth of NGOs in Haiti. However, he now is more silent on the labor issue and Herz describes attending a fundraiser for the start up NGO Students of the World where Farmer delivered remarks.

Sources within the PIH circle and other observers are not named, but they offer critical reflections on Farmer. In the final section, Herz recounts confronting Farmer on the charges of being silenced and used.
Farmer eventually disclaimed any leadership role, saying, “I’m really not a UN official. I don’t have any obligations.” 
“On the second year anniversary [of the quake] I wrote what I had to say and I don’t really have any more to say.” 
When I said he had lost the razor-sharp critical voice from Uses of Haiti, he said, “I hope you’re wrong about that.”
Farmer sits on the board of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), the very same group that is suing the UN over the cholera outbreak in Haiti. Farmer has been noticeably silent on the issue, but defended his support of IJDH when confronted by Herz noting in the conversation, “I’ve never worked in any social justice organization where there aren’t serious disagreements inside.”

Note: I feel it important to add that I am taking a decidedly middle stance on this discussion. The point is to highlight the thrust of the argument for those who might miss it. Herz raises some questions that are worth considering, but there are a lot of things that take place behind closed doors that are hard to account. The reason for sharing this because it is one of the first verbalizations of mummers I have heard for a few years. Aid workers and media are asking some of these questions. So there is value in the ideas becoming a part of a large discussion. However, the very first question should be if this is overblown, just right, or understated.