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Dr. Paul Farmer, UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, on Haiti’s Challenges Following Catastrophic Earthquake and Years of Western Domination

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Last year, the well-known activist medical anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer was appointed the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti. Farmer is founder of the charity Partners in Health, which provides healthcare for people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other conditions in Haiti, as well as more than eight other countries around the world. He has vocally criticized US destabilization efforts in Haiti as well as major US corporations that have pursued profit at the expense of global health. Democracy Now! caught up with Dr. Farmer on Wednesday at the UN donors conference. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 25, 2021Haiti’s Villages Continue to Be “Cut Off from Help” More Than a Week After Massive Earthquake
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, among those at the donor conference yesterday was Dr. Paul Farmer, well-known activist, medical anthropologist. He was appointed the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, working under former President Bill Clinton. He’s the founder of the charity Partners in Health, which provides healthcare for people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and other conditions in Haiti, as well as eight other countries. He has vocally criticized US destabilization efforts in Haiti as well as major US corporations that have pursued profit at the expense of global health.

Well, on Wednesday, Democracy Now! producers Aaron Maté and Nicole Salazar caught up with Dr. Farmer at the conference.

    DR. PAUL FARMER: The biggest problem, as was predicted by many, the biggest problem is shelter. So, right after the earthquake, and I was — you know, we were there. I was, you know, thinking as a doctor might, you know, what these — we needed trauma care, orthopedics, all kinds of medical care, as you might imagine, for injuries. We needed relief and rescue efforts. And you needed food, water and shelter. I’m not suggesting the food and water problems have been solved — they haven’t — but the biggest problem is shelter. You know, you have people living in these very precarious circumstances, as you know. And if it’s dry, they’re fire risks. And if it’s wet, they’re flooding or erosion risks. And so that’s what we really have to act on very urgently, is trying to help people have better shelter. That’s the number-one problem right now.

    Now, what I would say to an American audience, or anybody, any thoughtful, progressive, forward-thinking person, is what have we not done so well in Haiti in the past? You know, how have our policies been flawed? How have the attempts to fill this space — you know, you have a flawed policy — say, for example, you know, you’re looking at support for a dictatorship. You know, I mean, the United States had a relationship with the Duvalier dictatorships for a long time. You say, wait, we don’t want to do that. Part of the reaction to that was to only put money into non-state actors, like NGOs and certain contractors. Has that had the results that we wanted? No. Otherwise, Haiti would not be both the country with the highest per capita rate of NGOs in this half of the world and also the least literate.

    So again, I keep going back to this very difficult struggle about if we believe in the right to healthcare, if we believe in the right to education, who confers rights? Not NGOs. The United States can’t confer rights in Haiti. The Haitian government has to confer rights, at least the right to education and the right to healthcare. I would also say the right to clean water. Any social and economic right is usually delivered by the government, as it was in the United States, you know, during the Great Depression. You know, you had brisk engagement from the federal government — and I’m sure state governments, as well — to try and respond to unemployment, a lack of, you know, housing, a lack of healthcare, such as it was, a lack of public infrastructure. And that was a good thing for the United States, you know, to have that kind of brisk intervention.

    Now, Haiti does not have the public coffers that even, you know, in the lowest point of the Depression, you know, Haiti is in a much worse situation than we were back then even. But that doesn’t mean that the friends of Haiti, if there are any, can’t say, “We’d like to see some of these resources go to building back public health and public education, or building back better,” as President Clinton keeps saying. I think that’s a good term. You know, I don’t like slogans very much, but “build back better” suggests that Haitians do have something to build on. And I would say that Haitians have the Haitian revolution to build on. You know, that’s a pretty glorious past in so many ways. You know, they followed through on what other people were talking about — liberty, equality, fraternity. They banned slavery, and they were the first to do it. And, you know, Haitians believe, as you know, that they’re being punished for — they were punished for that for two centuries, for ending slavery.

    AARON MATÉ: You’ve been involved in Haiti for many years. What’s it been like for you to witness the country in the aftermath of the earthquake, personally?

    DR. PAUL FARMER: Well, you know, this is not something I like talking about very much. And I think you can understand that for those of us who have been working there a long time and are familiar with the places and, you know, have roots there, it was — it’s been very difficult. It’s been — I mean, it would have been difficult had it happened in, you know, any place that I didn’t know, but to have it happen in a place where, you know, we’ve all been working or living was — it being the loss of, you know, so many lives and so many buildings, and especially houses, it’s very, very painful. And it’s still painful, you know.

    And I’m headed back there, and I know that there’s going to — some of the rubble gets cleared out, little by little, but, you know, is still looks like there’s just been an earthquake there. And it will look that way for a while, because rebuilding after such a colossal catastrophe is going to take many, many years. Anybody who tells you today or any other day that they know what they’re talking about or dealing with, whether emotionally, logistically in terms of financial planning, rebuilding, can’t be telling the truth, because nothing like this has ever happened in the middle of a capital city. Maybe Managua 1972, but that was — you know, this is many times worse than the other natural disasters that people talk about. So it’s been personally very, very difficult. And I think just the sights and smells and sounds of it have been difficult.

    And that said, the Haitian people are very heroic. You know, I don’t want to romanticize heroism or their resilience, but I have to say, they have been able to pull themselves together, you know, and better than any other people I could think of. And they have a long, hard slog in front of them. We know that just by visiting one of the camps, the temporary settlements. But they ought to at least be able to count this time on having real accompaniment as they go forward in that long, hard slog.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Farmer is the UN Deputy Secretary — UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti. He is the founder of the charity Partners in Health, which is very active in Haiti, as well as a number of other countries around the world.

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