Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paul Farmer to Head Up USAID?

Unconfirmed rumor floating around the net. A strange choice, in many ways. The position is said to involve not just USAID but the coordination of the other major initiatives like PEPFAR and the MCC. Farmer is by all accounts a saintly guy who's spent years laying on hands as a doctor in Haiti and more recently Rwanda. But I don't have any sense of his administrative or political abilities, or even if he has a well-thought-out vision of development, which, in the end, is more about helping poor people make more money for themselves than it is about us caring for their needs. I'm completely amenable to being persuaded that he's up for the job, but I'm not immediately convinced that he's got the right skill set to fix AID's sclerotic bureaucracy, redirect its overly politicized priorities, and make global economics work for poor people.


  1. I'm surprised that you don't know more about Farmer, as his skills in precisely the areas that you mention are legend. He has authored several books and dozens (if not hundreds) of scholarly articles, but, for an informative introduction to the man, I refer you to Tracy Kidder's bestselling book entitled "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World."

  2. If you want to learn more about Farmer, read his own books, not Kidder's. I think Kidder's book is more akin to hagiography than serious review of Farmer's work. Farmer's an MD, and has introduced a number of brilliant and innovative ideas (of course he's also presented quite a few proposals that are somewhat questionable or at least unproven), but he has freely declared his lack of interest in economics, something that I find questionable in a USAID administrator. Although I work in the health sciences, I'd never suggest that health is all there is to development. Outside of of trying to assure basic needs, I haven't seen a lot of interesting proposals for poverty reduction (as opposed to alleviation) coming from Farmer or his NGO. He's an impressive man, but I don't think he'd be effective in this job. There are candidates with more holistic ideas about responding to the world's needs. Just as an example, Jim Kim, Farmer's (mysteriously somewhat less famous) partner in his activities in Haiti and elsewhere has demonstrated his capacity to manage much larger and more complex agencies.