I spoke to Dr. Farmer at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti investor conference at Hotel Caribe last Thursday evening following speeches by UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton and Haitian President Rene Preval. As the crowd of investors, journalists, and officials moved to a neighboring ballroom to hear Clinton’s next speech, we stayed in the room to interview Farmer, who co-founded Partners in Health and authored “The Uses of Haiti.” I asked him about democracy in Haiti, the struggle over the minimum wage here, accountability to Haitians, and criticisms of Clinton-led efforts to attract investment to Haiti. Farmer was later driven away from the hotel in a $200,000 armored vehicle, according to a one blog. Background noise largely fades away after start of interview.
UPDATE: Rough transcript below.
Mediahacker: I asked the person from the IDB who was here this earlier. Are you concerned that the level of economic development that you’re helping to bring to Haiti is sort of outpacing the level of political development in Haiti? Given that the elections in the summer were sort of a farce, Lavalas was more or less excluded on a technicality, and hardly any Haitians participated in the election. There were riots last year over the food prices… you know, there are political problems in Haiti – and do you see the level of democracy in Haiti progressing with the –
Paul Farmer. Let me make a general point. You know, some of my co-workers here – there was a film made about the Raboteau massacre, I don’t know if you saw it, but it’s called By Kubiye ak change – did you see it?
Mediahacker: No. But I know of the massacre.
Paul Farmer: You should look at it. At the end of it, the point is made that it’s very difficult to build democracy in a setting of great poverty. And, social and economic rights, the right to a job, the right to food security, the right to be able to defend yourself, you know, that’s what poor people are always pushing for – here in this country particularly but everywhere I’ve worked elsewhere. So, I would think that those are related questions. And so, yes I’m concerned because all this cycle in my line of work is about poverty and disease are linked and it’s very difficult to pull those apart from each other, I would say.
Mediahacker: Some people point to the maquiladoras on the Mexico-American border as being something that maybe is trying to be created here in Haiti. They look at the kind of violence and corruption on the border there. I mean is that concern at all, that with the suppression of the wages here –
Farmer: Sure that’s a concern. That’s why you have to have to tie responsible labor practices to any kind of investment, especially in some sectors. Manufacturing is one of them, of course. And that’s why you have to bring people together with the idea of protecting labor rights any time you’re going to do this if you don’t want to just replicate a model that hasn’t been effective in the past.
Now you have to look hard, case by case, and decide if that’s being done. And I think that’s our obligation, to look hard at every case. Last year I wrote a piece in the Nation, after the storms, and said “progressives” – people who consider themselves progressives – hey have to be careful, not to dismiss any possibility for jobs with dignity. And I think that’s really where we are now, not just here but anywhere. We have to protect labor’s rights and think about listening to poor people who say, “We need jobs,” because they’re not asking for handouts – I mean, you’ve heard all this before – they’re asking for dignity, justice, respect for their rights to survive.
So let me just say one other thing. And this is just as someone who’s been working here a long time and considers himself an advocate of poor people’s rights. What I’m talking about is a process of discernment, you know, looking at something and studying it carefully and seeing if it really is up to snuff. If it meets the demands that are laid out, especially I think by people living in poverty. My experience has been very clear about what they want. That’s been true in Haiti but also in other places I’ve worked.
Mediahacker: There was some demand here earlier in the summer for a raise in the minimum wage. And the parliament actually passed a raise to 200 gourdes. The Preval administration essentially fought it and has kept it low, and I don’t think there’s been a final processing of what the wage is going to be at –
Farmer: I don’t know all the specifics but let me say that Haiti is enmeshed in a global political economy and has been, really, since – I mean you could start the clock ticking in the late 15th century, right?
Mediahacker: Yes – I read your book ‘The Uses of Haiti.’
Farmer: Well then you’ll know that I think these are not only local processes. They’re really transnational processes. And I think having a really broad based look at how we protect the rights of poor people in Haiti, defend their rights, is going to require us to go beyond just a local or regional analysis. And that whole notion of a ‘race to the bottom’ is race to the bottom of what? That’s a critique we made of the maquiladora industry, that it was a race to the bottom of the transnational political economy. And I guess that’s my question – how do we protect the rights that poor people are struggling for, and those are going to be workers.
This mission by the way – for example, we went from discussing things at this conference to fish farm producgion, you know, and we’re going to be talking about making capital available to people living in greatp overty. It’s not just the banks that lend to big businesses but also micro-finance – but that is not a fantasy either, as I’m sure you know if you’ve been living and working here. There needs to be a much more robust effort to create large scale jobs creation. At least that’s what I would think as a doctor working in central Haiti over all these years. You know, we have people come and show up, and they’re prematurely sick because they don’t have jobs and they don’t have decent jobs.
Mediahacker: I’ll just ask point-blank: Do you think the administration here was under pressure from international forces to fight the increase in the minimum wage?
Farmer: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think people are under pressure any time – you call it the administration but there are various parts of it – they’re under pressure to respond to the demand to create jobs. And to promote food security and access to basic services like clean water, and that’s the nature of the political process. The elected official is supposed to be under pressure to do those things, to perform. The popular movement in Haiti, as far as I can tell, has always had that message, you know, poor people’s basic rights. And that was true in the 80s, 90s, it’s true now. I’m sure it was true in the late 18th century when the movement was much more dramatic in terms of fighting against slavery but it was still a fight for poor people’s rights and respect for dignity.
Mediahacker: Maybe last question. How are you accountable, and President Clinton, and the people here, accountable to the Haitian people?
Farmer: Well President Clinton and I are both volunteers. So the accountability we have is to listen – for me it’s to listen to patients, for example, and what they say. And really, trying hard not to listen just to, for example ideology or ideas that come from people because they’re trying to promote a political platform or ideology, whether that’s in my country or any other. But the accountability for me is just listening to what poor people have to say. And I’ve been lucky that, as a physician I get to hear a lot of what poor people say. And my experience so far in Haiti is really that. I haven’t had another experience yet.
Mediahacker: I talked to somebody with Fonkoze yesterday. He’s a regional director and he was saying that he doesn’t think a lot of the NGOs here are really accountable –
Farmer: I think that’s true. I think that’s a very very important point, is that there is not an accountability mechanism for NGOs. And so we rely on the goodwill of NGOs but that’s not enough. First of all we need proper coordination. We’ve got 9 or 10 thousand NGOs in Haiti, you know, that’s the highest ratio per capita maybe in the world. President Clinton said more than any place other than India, I don’t know. He’s probably right.
And as someone who works in an NGO I just do not think we have accountability mechanisms for our work. And I could make a simple suggestion to improve it, and that is, we need to support the public sector. Like for example, you can’t have public health without a public sector. You can’t have public education without a public sector. I don’t think you can have good water projects without the public sector. So that’s the struggle I think that NGOs can get involved in too. Just because we’re in the private sector as non-governmental organizations doesn’t mean we have to regard the public sector as somehow competing. We’re supposed to be competing to serve the basic rights notions, and that’s not going to happen without strengthening the public sector.
You know, not to be too theoretical about it, but when you talk about rights like the right to healthcare. Well, who confers rights? It’s not NGOs, it’s not universities. It’s the government. So if we’re undermining, wittingly or unwittingly, the government we’re doing a disservice, I think, to the basic notion of rights to healthcare, education. Those are the things I know about – healthcare and education – much more than some of the other rights that are also important and fought for very hard for Haitians for over two centuries.
So that’s the, if I could say, the theoretical underpinning for having NGOs be accountable – is be accountable to the poor and people in general, whether poor or not poor, should be able to elect who they want and then have other accountability mechanisms but we need them too in the NGO sector. And you know, unfortunately, NGOs have not always been welcoming of any kind of accountability.
Mediahacker: I wonder if you would agree with the statement that some of the forces amassed in this hotel and just in general historically – foreign forces and also corporate forces have not been accountable to the people of Haiti and have undermined the government –
Farmer: I have to say that there’s a long list of people – who say forces who haven’t been accountable to the Haitian people. This started a long time ago as I said. You know, I’m… I think that’s something we really need to think hard about. Again, in the so-called private sector as well, because the private sector includes churches and NGOs and you know, we can do better.
Farmer: I think. Good talking to you.