Why I Give
In 2003 a friend gave me a book that changed my life — although not in a way that anyone noticed or maybe that even I noticed at the time. The book was Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” an account of how one person was trying to alter the way Western industrial nations thought about health care in the rest of the world.That one person, the subject of the biography, was Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained doctor, who during medical school spent most of his time volunteering at a hospital in Cange, Haiti. During this same period, while he was still in his 20s, Farmer and some friends set up a nonprofit called Partners in Health (PIH) to have an organizational presence in the country. By the time Kidder met him in Haiti in the mid ’90s, Farmer and PIH had funded and set up clinics where impoverished people could go for treatment free of charge. Kidder thought Farmer had done a lot, but as Kidder later said, “Looking back, I realize that he was just getting started.” Farmer died unexpectedly this year on February 21. He was in Butaro, Rwanda, attending at a hospital that PIH had built. He and his family had made their home in Rwanda, though he often traveled to other countries to lecture and raise money. In the intervening years since Kidder’s book, Farmer had become a world-renowned advocate for health-care reform. He won a MacArthur Fellowship. He hobnobbed with heads of state. But on the night before he died he was seeing patients. That’s the thing about Farmer: Even when he was a famous health-care advocate, he was first and foremost a doctor and healer. Farmer’s “radical” assertion “that all human beings deserve equal respect and care, especially when they are sick,” continues to provoke my thinking about my charitable giving. I don’t know if Farmer ever used the phrase “think global, act local.” It’s a cliché for sure, but its wisdom resonates with me. Locally there is such a deep well of need in my town, my state, my country. On the other hand, a relatively small amount of money — the cost, say, of a dinner out with friends and spouse — can cure a case of infantile malaria or multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. What would the good doctor say about these issues to a retired school teacher like me? Perhaps he would merely revise: “Give local, give global.” Anyhow, that’s what I’m hoping he’d say.