Monthly Archives: May 2009

Paul Farmer: There Are No Silver Bullets for Effecting Social Change

by Jane Lowicki-Zucca, 2007 Reynolds Fellow 

After reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains and
sections of Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power this semester, it was a
privilege to hear Dr. Farmer speak in person at the NYU Medical School on April
30, 2009. He was the final speaker of the NYU Reynolds Program in Social
Entrepreneurship 2008-2009 Speaker Series. In addition to his general
affability and wit, several things he said have stayed with me as particularly


He recapped comments he made at last year’s Reynolds Speaker
Series event, outlining three paradigms for involvement in international
development work, or work with and for the world’s poor more generally:
rights-based; public health needs; and economic development. He called these
paradigms complementary, noting their promise and limitations for prompting and
informing appropriate, equitable and entrepreneurial action for social change.
He repeated that there are no silver bullets, and stated that, “There is
nothing to save us from hard work


I took this to mean that whatever path you follow, recognize
that it is not the only one that matters or that will provide answers, and that
it will always involve an enormous effort, which will require new learning
along the way.


He also noted that coordination is the
biggest challenge to entrepreneurial approaches to social change
. He quoted
a Haitian proverb, “The rocks in the water do not know the pain of the rocks in
the sun” and said that there are many important entrepreneurial projects being
undertaken by do-gooders that are poorly coordinated. An important
entrepreneurial activity then involves figuring out how to coordinate this work
so that it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. He explained that the ongoing,
devastating effects of recent hurricanes in Haiti are not simply the result of
natural disaster, but result from a combined environmental, social and
political disaster, requiring a much more coordinated approach to prevention
and response.


Dr. Farmer further argued that entrepreneurial activity
requires government, that is, public action to establish a basic “safety net

for people around the world. He called for a recommitment to, and investment
in public health as an essential objective of, and basis for social
entrepreneurship and social change
. Dr. Farmer thus reminds us that important
social innovation need not involve new ideas, but simply implementing them or implementing
existing ideas in new ways.