Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Addressing the Problems of Poverty

Partners in Health’s 15th annual Thomas J White Symposium

In the storied walls of Harvard’s Memorial Hall, Partners in Health (PIH) held their 15th annual Thomas J. White symposium and reaffirmed their commitment as an organization driven by a preferential option for the poor – a phrase and meaning developed by the Jesuit Gustavo Gutierrez during the liberation theology movement in Peru. From the first speaker to the last, the day’s agenda was clear – clarify the mission and build on the movement.

The founding of PIH and the story of their early work is best illustrated in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, but at this symposium the characters leaped off the pages utilizing humor, sincerity, and a clear rationale that runs throughout the organization’s work. Ophelia Dahl, daughter of famed writer Roald and executive director of PIH, started by stating what may not be obvious to an outsider. Although PIH is internationally renowned for their HIV work – they are not an HIV/AIDS organization. The title would be limiting because the heart of their work is based on addressing the problems of the poor. These problems, which certainly include HIV/AIDS, are rooted in economic and social human rights violations. Is it a coincidence that people without access to clean water, adequate shelter, or jobs (let alone healthcare) are the ones most affected by the major diseases of our world? The PIH answer is simply no.

PIH has long held a rights based approach to healthcare that attempts to correct the root causes, such as poor housing or access, while addressing the symptoms, like malnutrition or HIV infection. At their core they are community builders and focus their attention and resources on the two pillars of any society – health and education. Fundamentally they profess the commonalities between all people and dispel “the accident of where we are born” should dictate who suffers, who is oppressed, and who dies.

On paper what PIH has accomplished is clear. They have established centers in 7 countries in 5 global regions. They see millions of impoverished or marginalized people as patients, and they have taught, trained, and employed the locals to effectively assume the majority of the operational tasks. However, a similarly vital success has been the overall movement – a word heavily emphasized throughout the speakers. PIH’s revolutionary approach changed the mentality that high level healthcare could not be achieved in poor settings. They are, dare I say, true mavericks. The ripple effect was best portrayed in the event’s four keynotes. The first two were former refugees who are now doctors. They have both returned to their homelands to start similar rights and development based clinics, Tiyatien Health in Liberia and Village Health Works in Burundi. The other two keynote speakers represented the student movement. First was Dave Ryan, the president of FACEAIDS (an advocacy and fundraising student group highly featured in this blog) who spoke of the importance of initiative, action, and results. A similar message was espoused by Matt Cone, a high school professor of contemporary issues at Rock Bride High in Missouri. His class has not only raised over 100 thousand dollars for PIH, but it has done so by incorporating a sense of attention, advocacy, and action in the curriculum of the course.

The movement has already formed and focuses people on the economic and social justice path to creating change, development, and dignified living. The tangible results are there – Adeline Mercon, a Haitian mother, spoke through an overqualified translator (Dr. Farmer) and stated I am the 2nd Lazarus and I am celebrating the 10th year of my second life. Her story started with her father asking Dr. Farmer for money to buy his daughter’s coffin and ended with her strong enough to work and care for her children. Somewhere in Peru, Gustavo Gutierrez is nodding his head in agreement because the movement is growing and the results are adding up.

Please refer to the photos on the sidebar and blog entries from April for my experiences documenting Partners in Health in Rwanda.

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