Paul Farmer.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo


Rethinking health and human rights

6 min read

Paul Farmer awarded Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture

Paul Farmer, the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, was selected as the winner of the 2020 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. 

The $1 million award, announced Dec. 16 by the Berggruen Prize Jury, is given annually to thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world. Farmer was chosen for his impactful work at the intersection of public health and human rights. 

“We are proud to award Dr. Paul Farmer the Berggruen Prize for transforming how we think about infectious diseases, social inequality and caring for others while standing in solidarity with them. He has reshaped our understanding not just of what it means to be sick or healthy but also of what it means to treat health as a human right and the ethical and political obligations that follow,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the Berggruen Prize jury and professor of philosophy and law at New York University.

Farmer is the author of 12 books written throughout a nearly 30-year career in building lifesaving medical care systems in resource-poor communities, most notably in Haiti and West Africa. This lifetime of global health expertise has been instrumental in understanding and addressing the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bringing vast experience from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, he and his colleagues at Partners In Health designed and implemented the COVID-19 response in Massachusetts, centered around an intensive contact tracing program inclusive of resource coordinators to help people isolate safely. This approach was widely adopted by dozens of other states. 

“As both thinker and actor, Dr. Paul Farmer has connected the philosophical articulation of human rights to the practical pursuit of health,” said Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of the Berggruen Institute. 

“He has done this on the basis of new ideas and new analyses and also by connecting the human experience and practical politics of health to enduring challenges of human rights and justice. Not least, he has led by impressive moral example as an educator, a leader and a physician.”

As the fifth winner of the prize, Farmer was selected from hundreds of nominees including some of the world’s most renowned thinkers spanning the fields of philosophy, social science, global justice, bioethics and beyond, the institute announced.

In both theory and practice, Farmer has worked to change how the world thinks about health and disease. In AIDS and Accusation, Farmer addressed how disease was entangled with place and social relations by examining the profoundly interactive effects of social structure and biology. Farmer remained active in the struggle against AIDS, breaking new ground in linking analysis of gender, drugs and poverty. 

His lifelong commitment to Haiti is manifest both in his medical practice and in Haiti after the Earthquake, which remains among the most important analyses of when international assistance works and when it doesn’t. In Pathologies of Power, Farmer connected the struggle for better health to the pursuit of human rights bringing a crucial new dimension to our understanding of global public health which is also evident in his newest book, “Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History.”

In 1983, he began his lifelong commitment to Haiti while still a student working with dispossessed farmers in Haiti’s Central Plateau. He served there for 10 years as medical director of a charity hospital, Good Savior Hospital. As a co-founder of Partners In Health, Farmer has led colleagues working in 12 sites throughout Haiti and 12 additional countries for the past 26 years. 

Founded in 1987, Partners in Health has become a model for health care for poor communities worldwide and provides the basis for developing a science of global health delivery implementation.

“Most recently, Dr. Farmer demonstrates how best to address this pandemic and prevent future ones. Dr. Farmer’s call to improve public health systems is a matter not only of science but also of politics, economics, and ethics,” said Amy Gutmann, Berggruen prize juror and president of the University of Pennsylvania. 

“In this crisis, like the ones that preceded it, our knowledge far outpaces our will to put effective solutions into action. Farmer has shown that health and health care disparities worsen the pandemic, and he calls for the social as well as medical support needed by all communities ravaged by coronavirus. He also emphasizes — while doing all in his own power to address — the special burden of caregivers. And he helps explain why, for all its importance, the arrival of vaccines will not replace the need for basic public health measures.”

Farmer is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recently served as the United Nations special adviser to the secretary-general on community-based medicine and lessons from Haiti. Farmer is also HMS professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Global Health Equityat Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

Established by philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen in 2016, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture was first awarded to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor for his impact on the humanities, social sciences and public affairs in deepening understanding among different intellectual traditions and civilization. 

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve was the 2017 Berggruen Prize laureate for her work as a citizen philosopher who has elevated the quality of public life and improved the very vocabulary of public discourse.

In 2018, public and moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum received the award for her framework for thinking about human capabilities and exploring vulnerability, fear and anger in moral and political life. Last year, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recognized for her life’s work in pioneering gender equality and strengthening the rule of law. 

This year’s Berggruen Prize Jury, headed by Appiah, is an international group of authors and thinkers including Antonio Damasio, Yuk Hui, Elif Shafak, David Chalmers, Amy Gutmann, and Wang Hui. 

The institute announced that the work and ideas of Paul Farmer will be celebrated in a virtual talk moderated by their event partners BBC News World Service in late spring 2021.  Event details are expected to be announced in February 2021.