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ND presents int’l development award

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, April 28, 2011

A surge in global solidarity has served as a catalyst for raising health standards in the third world, cofounder of Partners In Health (PIH) Ophelia Dahl said Wednesday at a recognition ceremony in the Hesburgh Library. PIH was recently named the recipient of the 2011 Notre Dame Award for International Human Development and Solidarity.

“The challenge is to corral this solidarity and make it meaningful,” she said in a panel discussion at Washington Hall. “We need to address how we can use our privileges and influence to the best of our abilities to stand in solidarity with the poor.”

Dahl, who serves as president and executive director of PIH, founded the nonprofit organization with cofounder and Harvard University professor Paul Farmer in rural Haiti in 1987 with the goal of providing a preferential option for the poor. Today, the organization directly involves more than 12,000 people at more than 60 hospitals and health centers in 12 countries to provide quality healthcare for the poor.

In a private award ceremony, University president Fr. John Jenkins said PIH exemplifies the principle of solidarity in its work, aligning it closely with the service-oriented Notre Dame community.

“I think [PIH] represents in their work the work of Christ, which is why we feel such an affinity for Partners In Health and why our students feel connected to their work,” he said.

Fr. Robert Dowd, director of the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity, said the award recognizes people who make substantial contributions to international human development through research, practice, public service and philanthropy.

The Ford Program chose to recognize PIH for its commitment to solidarity in providing holistic, community-based health care methods for the poor, Dowd said.

“Partners In Health exemplifies what it is to come close to those in need by promoting healing and peace among them and understanding the relationship between social and economic contexts and health problems,” Dowd said. “They epitomize the values at the core of the Notre Dame mission by integrating the head and the heart to help the poor.”

Steve Reifenberg, executive director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, said the unique community-based structure of PIH makes it a model for charity organizations around the world.

“Partners in Health helped re-conceptualize the notion of a charity organization by connecting service, teaching and research,” he said. “This model for institutional innovation connects with the University and the Ford Program, and it focuses on charity in connection with solidarity.”

During the panel discussion, Dowd asked Dahl and Farmer about the relationship between the principles of Catholic social teaching and the overall mission of PIH.

“I think Catholic social teaching has had a very deep impact on our work, but others who don’t share that background have been very involved in our work in equally meaningful ways,” Farmer said. “There are many complementary paradigms we can draw on.”

Dahl said that although worries about the scope and effectiveness of PIH’s work presents a challenge to the organization, she and Farmer emphasized the importance of optimism in furthering the mission of the organization.

“To even consider losing hope in the face of all this is a luxury many others can’t afford,” Dahl said. “We saw hope in the young workforce of Silicon Valley, where people are optimistic about solving health problems with technology.”

Farmer echoed that view, praising the youth at Notre Dame for their potential to service the world.

“This auditorium full of people at Notre Dame, the people we teach around the world, our patients … that’s a lot of affirming, life-giving hope,” Farmer said.

When asked about the relationship between poverty, violence and health care, Farmer said violence makes it difficult, but not impossible, to provide services for the poor.

“Structural and acute violence are invariably connected in that social disparities become entrenched and episodic violence happens in response,” he said. “It’s very difficult to deliver public health services in places with conflict, but it’s always possible. We rely on community health workers to do our best to deliver public health.”

Farmer said this community-based approach to health care helps PIH provide more holistic care for the poor while allowing the organization to consider the larger structural issues that contribute to poverty and illness.

“What we really want is to address the root causes of violence and poverty,” he said. “Your generation is learning how to think by looking at the local and the large scale at the same time, which has been very helpful to our organization. We must pay close attention to the illness in front of us while understanding the large-scale social forces that put patients at risk.”

Dahl said this assessment of the base causes of poverty and illness translates directly to advocacy for improved conditions in poor countries.

“As we studied health, we realized we couldn’t do our work without investigating these root causes and advocating for better conditions,” she said. “We are making sure we constantly assess how best to advocate for the poor, and we continue to partner with people who can advocate well.”

Farmer said the first step in assessing the needs of a particular place is to find the health issues that are most prevalent in that area.

“We first look at the burden of disease of a place by asking people what the most common health problems are for the local population. Then we look at what’s being neglected,” he said. “Some diseases deemed rare and neglected aren’t rare at all, they just afflict the poor. All poor people’s health problems are neglected, so we have a lot of work to do.”

Although these problems appear daunting, Farmer expressed confidence in the ability of the next generation of medical professionals to solve global health issues.

“Young doctors and clinicians are facing a series of seemingly intractable problems, but they’re really not intractable,” he said. “You need to take on those problems and stick to them over time because we’re counting on you to improve them, and I’m confident that you will.”