Arnold Kling  

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Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. The book profiles Paul Farmer, a physician who has dedicated his life to improving health in underdeveloped countries, particularly Haiti. Farmer is at least as comfortable living and healing amid squalor as he is jetting to conferences on public health.

You wonder where Farmer gets his strength and dedication. From his father, he seems to have inherited a fiercely stubborn, independent nature. But where his father was a chronic failure, Farmer is a genius who is nearly always right, at least if Kidder is to be believed.

Pete Geddes also read the book, and he was very much put off by Farmer's politics. There is a section in the book where Farmer and Kidder visit Cuba, and this includes a lot of America-bashing and praise for the Communist regime. Given that one of Farmer's defining characteristics is an extreme reluctance to defer to authority, Kidder should have been able to discern the disingenuousness of Farmer' support for Cuba. Not to mention the fact that the drugs that Farmer uses to fight AIDS and tuberculosis in his health clinics were all developed in the United States.

However, I think that Geddes makes too much of Farmer's politics. His main focus is on doing good work on the ground. He is a classic example of what William Easterly would call a "searcher," someone who understands and adapts to local needs, working directly with the people rather than through government. Easterly, on p. 147 of The White Man's Burden, points out that over the last 50 years the Duvalier regime in Haiti received more loans from the IMF than any other country. That aid almost surely did harm. Farmer's work almost surely did good.


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Patrick writes:

Great book Arnold. Weird that anyone would fixate on Farmer's politics. Admittedly, I read the book 2 years ago, but I don't recall much focus on his politics....

Enjoy the read.

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