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While many human rights activists address a wide spectrum of issues, Paul Farmer focuses his efforts on an often-overlooked human right – the right to health.

Farmer is a medical anthropologist at Harvard Medical School and the founding director of Partners in Health, an international organization that seeks to address the health problems of the poor. An enthusiastic human rights advocate, Farmer believes that human rights organizations have focused too much on political and civil rights, which cannot be enjoyed when people lack access to basic healthcare and nutrition.

Farmer says that his experience working as a doctor in countries like Haiti and Rwanda revealed to him that ill health is usually “a symptom of poverty and violence and inequality” that can only be remedied by “bringing…many others” into a movement to recognize basic human rights.

Farmer points out that many of his patients “can vote but…can’t get medical care or clean water,” highlighting the discrepancy between the constitutional rights of the world’s poor and the basic human right to health that they are regularly denied. So how, when millions of people die each year due to poverty-induced ill health, can the global community even begin to establish health as a fundamental and inalienable human right?

Farmer says that the key is to “go to people with power and try to get their help.” He acknowledges that Partners in Health and similar aid organizations cannot singlehandedly establish health as a globally-recognized human right, but ordinary people can make a difference in the lives of the world’s poor and sick simply by letting those in power know they care.

While the poverty and illness present in the world may appear overwhelming, Farmer stresses that we must not assume that those in power will not help. In order to change the world, though, we have to ask.

Katie Bandera

Sources: NPR, NY Times, WHO
Photo: The Daily Beast