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Farmer Still Under Consideration for Obama Administration Position; Takes Harvard Medical School Appointment

While Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer is still being considered for a senior role in the Obama administration, Farmer has been appointed chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine – Jeffrey Flier, the medical school’s dean, said on Wednesday – the Boston Globe reports. Flier said that Farmer will take a leave of absence from the medical school if he is offered a position with the administration. For now, Farmer is slated to succeed the current chairman, Jim Kim, on July 1 (Smith, Boston Globe, 5/28).

Foreign Policy’s blog, “The Cable,” reports that Farmer is “under consideration to head” USAID or “serve in a top administration international assistance post that would encompass it.” An unnamed “international health activist” said that Farmer might be appointed USAID administrator “as an interim thing” and that he might go on to lead a new position focused on “global health in the process of foreign assistance reform over the coming year.” Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is organizing efforts to reform the Foreign Assistance Act later this year. The act was originally written in 1961 (Rozen, “The Cable”/Foreign Policy, 5/26).

On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Jack Lew said that the government is considering ways to significantly improve coordination of various agencies that work with global health assistance. “We’re open to creative ideas about how to bring appropriate resources to bear,” Lew said, adding, “When we look at public-private partnerships and recruiting, we’re looking at how to cast the broadest net to bring in the right talent and commitment to address the challenge” (Boston Globe, 5/28).  

Partners in Health said it is pleased that Farmer is being considered along with other strong candidates. Wendy Sherman, an advisor to Hillary Clinton, and Aaron Williams, a former USAID official who is now with RTI International, are among some of the “[p]reviously rumored contenders for the USAID administrator job,” according to “The Cable.” 

Last week, Farmer had a meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, Partners in Health said. Andrew Marx, a spokesman for the group, said that one of the reasons why people are “excited about the idea of Paul is that he and Partners in Health in the past have been quite prepared to challenge the accepted wisdom.” According to Marx, Farmer did not buy into the conventional approach to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in the 1990s, when the WHO’s official policy was not to treat people who were diagnosed with the disease because it was complicated and the costs were high.

When asked if Farmer would be interested in a USAID administrator position that has strong democracy and governance components, Marx said, “Good governance and democracy are important to us,” adding that the group’s work focuses on building up countries’ public health systems rather than creating independent health clinics.

David Bryden, senior program policy officer for the Center for Global Health Policy, said, “There are many exciting things about Paul Farmer.” According to Bryden, Farmer “has been a person with a very practical mindset, he knows how to get the job done, put aside conventional wisdom when it’s wrong… It’s really exciting” (“The Cable,” Foreign Policy, 5/26).

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