Paul Farmer Calls for Compassion at Kennedy School Class Day

In his address to students and families at the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday, University Professor Paul E. Farmer challenged graduates to find ways to incorporate compassion and persistence into the development of future public policies. Drawing upon his experience in the aftermath of the Jan. 2010 earthquakes in Haiti, Farmer emphasized the importance of investment in and attachment to humanitarian projects, a concept he dubbed “accompaniment.”

“All that I have to offer you today turns about the notion of accompaniment,” he said to the audience. “It is an elastic term, but here it means sticking to a task until it is deemed completed by the person that you are accompanying.”

Farmer acknowledged that the concept could initially appear unrelated to government, but said that it has far-reaching implications. He asked graduates to consider the potential increase in the effectiveness of humanitarian aid that is executed according to the notion of accompaniment.

“Many of you here will be soon leading foreign contractors and NGOs—if you are not already—and you will need to help these organizations find a way to accompany our developing partners and intended beneficiaries away from deprivation and suffering,” he said.

“Just because we can’t tangibly measure the value of accompaniment, doesn’t mean that we can’t use it in the service of the common good,” Farmer added.

Farmer—a medical anthropologist and physician—is primarily known for his humanitarian work as a co-founder of the global health non-profit organization Partners In Health. In 2009, Farmer was also appointed to the position of United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti.

Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 told the audience that Farmer’s humanitarian work in the region is only one part of a long and significant career devoted to helping the poor.

“He has always made a commitment to instituting enduring changes,” Ellwood said of Farmer. “He has helped build structures, foundations, and institutions that will lead us to a better world.”

Farmer concluded his address by emphasizing to the graduates that the knowledge gained within the classroom must be accompanied by individual initiative.

“The greatest lesson that I took from the [Haiti] earthquake is that expertise will not solve all of the problems that we have today,” he said. “I hope that you will take this to heart as you are all already leaders, already accomplished, and—in being at the Kennedy School—deemed to make a great impact with the skills that you have garnered here.”

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at barbara.b.depena@college.harvard.edu.

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