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What Catholics taught a global health leader

Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer

A recent article from a global health leader provides insights into what influenced his successful work in Haiti.

Dr Paul Farmer, co-founder of the Boston-based Partners in Health, declares in an article for the Christian magazine Sojourners that two Latin American priests were among his greatest teachers: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Farmer was made famous through the book Mountains Beyond Mountains a profile of his work by acclaimed author Tracy Kidder. The community-based health network model that found success in Haiti can be traced back to the theological teachings of the two Catholic priests.

The lessons, Farmer says, came from all types of Catholics, from the priests to those living in poverty. Farmer credits the activists that he met as a young man in the “tough neighborhoods in Boston, the farms of North Carolina, and the slums of Lima” as living the teachings of Liberation theology. He outlines the three lessons that stood out most in his mind: 1) Preferential option for the poor; 2) The existence of structural violence; 3) The power of accompaniment.

Their activism taught me a lot about a space in the Catholic Church I’d not seen clearly before, and about the promise of long-term engagement in the monumental struggle against poverty and discrimination in all its forms. That includes gender inequality, no stranger to the institution. Most of the most inspiring activists were women.

Romero and Gutiérrez are crucial figures in the liberation theology movement within the Catholic Church. Their teachings championed social justice and human rights as central parts of Catholicism. Though it met resistance within the Church and in local politics, ideas such as the preferential option for the poor, a term coined by Gutiérrez, gained wider acceptance.

Archbishop Romero

Its spread was seen as a political threat to some. Archbishop Romero was assassinated in 1980 by a Salvadoran right-wing death squad. He, among other things, urged then-US President Carter to cease aid to the military junta. The government of El Salvador officially apologized for the murder thirty years later.

“An active concern for the poor is not only an obligation for those who feel a political vocation; all Christians must take the Gospel message of justice and equality seriously,” explained Gutiérrez in a 2003 interview with America Magazine.

Liberation theology took a more active stance towards poverty. Christian Base Communities were formed at the local level for the purpose of creating religious and social cohesion. A grassroots or ‘bottom-up’ approach to justice and poverty alleviation was advocated by leaders. Critics, including Cardinal Ratzinger (the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI), accused the movement as Marxist.

Such ideas were evident in Farmer’s December column for Foreign Affairs that called for a rethinking of foreign aid. He cut at the idea that NGOs are the solution to ending poverty. Rather, he championed donor transparency so that money can be given from government to government and the public sector can meet the needs of its citizens.

Champions of all things local will find that even Farmer is not a devout follower. Community-based and local solutions can be great, but are not always appropriate.

Many problems originate outside of people’s own communities: most trade regimes, all epidemics, and just about anything to do with climate change. Should every community be manufacturing its own vaccines or pedagogic materials or shoes? Of course not.

He provides five recommendations so that nations can make progress towards ending extreme poverty:

  1. Reward aid institutions and staff who localize aid dollars.
  2. Prioritize implementation with national counterparts at every step of the process.
  3. Do not conflate weak systems with corruption.
  4. Challenge common assumptions about what is considered sustainable and cost-effective in fragile settings.
  5. Prioritize the transfer of aid functions to local authorities.

Despite his caveats about going local, Farmer sees development through the lens of his Liberation theology heroes. The recommendations all work towards development led by developing countries, local groups and citizens, not the US and major international institutions. He believes deeply in what the public sector can deliver: health, education, clean water and more. It runs almost afoul to his former partner Jim Kim’s institution, the World Bank.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]