Farmer Discusses Aid Through Local Action

Unnamed photo
Natasha L. Coleman

Medical Anthropologist Paul E. Farmer chats with students after his presentation with Dai Ellis, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” The event is part of the larger Child Advocacy Program hosted by the Law School.

Partners in Health founder Paul E. Farmer drew a standing-room-only crowd to Langdell Hall at the Law School last night for a conversation about methods to help save children’s lives in Rwanda.

Farmer, a professor of medical anthropology at the Medical School, has won international acclaim for his work with HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis in some of the poorest countries of the world.

Farmer delivered the lecture on aiding youth with Dai Ellis, the founder of Orphans of Rwanda, a non-profit organization that helps young people affected by the 1994 Rwandan genocide attain a university education.

Farmer and Ellis, whose organizations have worked together in Rwanda, emphasized that international aid should be flexible and should rely on locals, not outsiders, to implement change.

When working to fight HIV infection of infants in Rwanda, “There was only one American, and the rest were locals that we trained,” Farmer said.

Saving lives depends on more than medicine, he said.

In Rwanda, casserole pots, water jugs, and kerosene stoves were the keys to ensuring that mothers would not breast-feed their children—and thus heighten their children’s risk of contracting AIDS.

By providing mothers with these items so they could boil water for baby formula, Farmer said, 104 out of 105 children avoided contracting the infection.

Making this kind of success a reality required a degree of flexibility, Farmer said.

At first, he said, competition with other aid agencies interfered with the process of actually helping the children.

He said Partners in Health also had to walk a tightrope with the Rwandan government, which banned them from working on the ground unless the organization called their efforts a study.

Ellis, the founder of Orphans of Rwanda, said that outside aid organizations must be wary of treating Africa as a “charity case.”

“We come to Africa with our own set of priorities and assumptions of what needs to happen there,” he said.

“You have got to believe that countries can develop themselves.”

Currently, only 1 percent of Rwandan students attend university, he said.

His organization aims to provide scholarships to disadvantaged students in order to foster a new generation of Rwandan leaders.

Farmer and Ellis’ speech was sponsored by the Child Advocacy Program at the Law School.