Hosted by Northwestern University and the student organization GlobeMed, Dr. Paul Farmer calls for “a broad vision of partnership” to cope with this devastating disaster.

Speaking on March 5 to an overflow crowd of more than 1000 people at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium (and hundreds more online), Dr. Farmer detailed the unprecedented challenges following the earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12.

“The two biggest long-term challenges are shelter and sanitation,” Dr. Farmer said.  He described one example of a “40,000-person tent city without actual tents, without latrines, where survivors have thrown together shacks using tarps or blankets and sticks.

“But even if it’s the worst natural disaster,” Dr. Farmer said, “and even though Haiti is our most vulnerable neighbor, none of the problems are insoluble.”

Dr. Farmer knows the subject as well as anyone in the United States.  He began a lifelong commitment to Haiti in 1983, while still a student at Harvard Medical School, working with villages in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.

In 1987 Dr. Farmer co-founded Partners in Health (PIH), starting with a one-building clinic.  Since then the clinic has mushroomed into a multi-service complex that includes an infirmary, a surgical unit, a hospital with more than 100 beds, clinics for women and children, a health outreach training program and even a primary school.

PIH has also established programs in Rwanda, Malawi, Peru and Russia.

But the PIH program in Haiti is Dr. Farmer’s best-known.  In 1993 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant for “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work” in Haiti.

In 2003 he was the subject of the bestseller “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder. It was Mr. Kidder’s book that introduced Dr. Farmer to much of the world, depicting him blasting through convention and bureaucracy to get results, and transforming him into what some call the “rock star” of global health work.  At the book’s heart is the spirit of a life based on hope no matter what, and on a Haitian proverb:  “Beyond mountains there are mountains” – surmount one problem, see another, tackle that one too.

At Cahn Auditorium, Dr. Farmer skipped over the amazing achievements prior to 2010, focusing more on the immense challenges in the earthquake’s aftermath.

“When I flew in [to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital] on Jan. 14, two days after the quake, I noticed two things right away.  First, there were no lights except for fires – some tended for cooking, some not controlled.  No other lights.  This was in contrast to what I saw years earlier when I visited for the first time – a lively city, lit up.  The second thing I noticed, getting off the plane this time, was the smell.”

Said Farmer the initial death toll was more than 200,000, a rate in excess of 24,000 per million inhabitants.  This is by far the highest rate from any recent natural disaster, nearly five times the rate resulting from the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, second on the list.  In Evanston such a rate would yield nearly 1,800 deaths.

“There are also more than 4,000 amputees,” Dr. Farmer noted, “and Haiti is a country where this can lead to ‘social death’ – loss of dignity and the opportunity for work.”  He quoted a survivor who, had he known he would face an amputation, “would have asked God to ‘please take my life.”

“In the short-term, churches have become hospitals, cousins have become [surrogate] parents,” Dr. Farmer said.

Answering questions after his presentation, Dr. Farmer called for a coordinated social-justice response – and follow-through.  “In the past in Haiti,” he said, “more than 80 percent of pledges went unmet after more than one year.

“There must be three components to our response,” Dr. Farmer said.  “Honor your pledges, listen to the poor and coordinate.  The need is overwhelming.  But our resources are enormous.  More than 50 percent of U.S. households have donated.”

Commenting on Dr. Farmer’s work, Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste called him “a great advocate.”  Ald. Jean-Baptiste emigrated from Haiti in 1964.  He returned there for a week in February to help family members coping with the disaster.

“Dr. Farmer is doing great work, excellent work,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste, who helped organize a fundraiser for PIH several years ago and has long been active in promoting Haitian self-determination.  “He fully understands the importance of training Haitian health-care workers, of building the capacity of the government system in Haiti.

“Without that government capacity, [Haiti] will continue to be a basket case,” the alderman said.  “There are 10,000 NGO’s [non-governmental organizations] in Haiti, functioning almost as a parallel government.  Dr. Farmer is a great spokesman for fair policy, and for integrating the work of NGO’s into Haitian society.  I respect his political position.

“We won a significant victory on Feb. 14, when the Haitian parliament voted to grant dual citizenship to Haitians in the diaspora,” Ald. Jean-Baptiste added.  “Three million are outside the country – 83 percent of educated Haitians live outside the country.  [The parliament vote] is a key step toward removing the barriers and increasing the voices of those outside.  Like us, Dr. Farmer doesn’t have the mentality of standing aside when a fight is called for.”

“We need to avoid the Balkanization of aid,” Dr. Farmer said in his concluding comments.  “We need a broad vision of partnership.  At universities, we need to link research and teaching to service.  We need to help Haiti build back better, to focus on job creation there, on what the poor are really telling us.  Otherwise the work will be fruitless.”

For more information, or to donate, see these websites: www.partnersinhealth.org or www.globemed.org.