Paul Farmer at Barry: NGOs Aren't Doing Enough to Help Haitian People

Dr. Paul Farmer, the Nobel-nominated founder of Partners in Health and a world expert on making international aid work, had harsh words yesterday for the hundreds of charities trying to help Haiti recover from January's earthquake.

​"There's graffiti all over the walls in Port au Prince right now saying, 'Down with NGOs,'" Farmer said in a speech at Barry University. "I think people in the NGO sector need to read the writing on the wall."

Coming from a man like Farmer, that's advice sure to turn heads in Haiti. Way back in 1987, Farmer and several colleagues founded Partners in Health, which provides free health care and drugs to Haiti's poorest residents. The group's model was so successful that it has since expanded to Rwanda, Russia, Peru and elsewhere. 

Farmer, meanwhile, became the subject of a bestselling book -- 2003's Mountains Beyond Mountains -- which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He was named U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti.

In his speech yesterday, Farmer said that since the earthquake, too many NGOs in Haiti are  worried more about staying in business than about creating sustainable solutions for Haitian people.

"In the end, that becomes the goal of the NGO -- self-preservation -- instead of whatever goals are spelled out in their grand mission statement," Farmer said to an audience filled with Haitian-American students and residents. "The Haitian people are seeing the money coming in, and the resources aren't coming to them. That discontent will only grow as the rainy season moves in."

In a wide-ranging speech, Farmer admitted that the post-quake work in Haiti swings a pendulum from "hope to dispair." He spoke of the dozens of friends and colleagues he's lost in the disaster and of the personal anguish of attending to so many brutal injuries.

But Farmer also offered solutions. He suggested refocusing on core missions, such as feeding the hungry, bringing clean water to the thirsty and burying the dead.

NGOs should also re-write their mission statements to make it clear that the biggest mission in Haiti needs to be creating long-term jobs for Haitians. Without a sustainable economy, none of the other relief work will matter, he says.

"If you can create several thousand jobs, you can change radically how the Haitian people will respond to their problems," he said. "They can make their own decisions."

Farmer also called for creative solutions to Haiti's problems. He mentioned traveling the country with Bill Clinton and confronting the problem of how to help the tens of thousands of seriously disabled earthquake victims. 

Clinton, Farmer said, suggested creating a call center industry in Haiti and giving first priority jobs to the disabled. 

"We should all have massive job creation as our primary goal," he said.