Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What did the Ebola outbreak teach us about West Africa?

There was a nice piece in the Monkey Cage about what did the Ebola outbreak teach us about West Africa, with specifics from Liberia, by journalist and researcher Ashoka Mukpo.

He starts by noting that the rule of thumb for journalism is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” This is why when so many Americans think about Africa, they think that all that is happening is civil wars and disease outbreaks, if they aren't just thinking about safari animals and primitive tribesmen. I remember when I was leaving for the Peace Corps in Benin, and people were telling me to watch out for Ebola. That was in 1995, when the Ebola outbreak was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which you can see from this map is even further from Benin that the current outbreak. Benin is over 1500 miles from the DRC. Telling me to look out for Ebola in the DRC when I'm going to Benin would be like telling someone in Africa to look out for a snowstorm in Los Angeles when they tell you they're going to Chicago. Hey, they're both cities in the United States, right?

When I look at the Reuters Africa page for stories for this blog, most of the stories are usually about violence, disease, or poor governance.

Here is the count right now for the first 2 pages: 12 stories on various types of deadly attacks, and 7 stories not about attacks. And the non-attack stories are often indirectly about attacks - two stories about the killing of Cecil the lion, and one story about a presidential candidate from the party of a man on trial for crimes against humanity in the recent civil war in Cote d'Ivoire:
  • 12 stories about terrorist attacks, pirate attacks, genocide, or civil war (recent attack in Mali, deadly attack by a Rwandan peacekeeper in the CAR, Rwandan spy chief released in the UK, pirate attacks in Nigeria)
  • 2 stories about corruption (Buhari's anti-graft moves in Nigeria, French investigation into bribery by a Gabonese official)
  • 2 stories about wildlife (Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe)
  • 1 story about business or economics (Ford to start assembly in Nigeria)
  • 1 story about immigration (UK foreign secretary warns African migrants threatens the EU's living standards
  • 1 story about election politics (candidate in Cote d'Ivoire from the party of Gbagbo, who is on trial for crimes against humanity)
Anyway, back to the Monkey Cage post. Now that Ebola is no longer an international health emergency, it is not much in the news. But the Ebola outbreak provides a window into other aspects of West Africa:

He starts with some positives. There was concern at one point that the number fatalities would rise to the hundreds of thousands, but medical workers, community volunteers, the Liberian government, and the World Health Organization (WHO) attacked the problem and prevented what was certainly a catastrophe (over 5,000 dead) from becoming even worse. 

The problem didn't need to get as bad as it did. Ebola spread so quickly in the beginning because Liberian citizens distrust their government, which is viewed as elitist and corrupt. According to a survey, family members, nurses and doctors, religious leaders, radio talk show hosts, and international NGOs are among the most trusted. Elected officials are the least trusted. So when the government announced warnings about Ebola, citizens viewed it as a cynical ploy to attract and embezzle development dollars. 

So Ebola was in large part a symptom of a broader challenge - developing high quality institutions. Good institutions are widely seen as a key ingredient for development, whether home-grown or with the help of foreign aid

For a more in-depth look at what the Ebola outbreak tells us about both West Africa and the international aid system, see this blog post from last year by Kim Dionne. 

More recently, the fight against Ebola is seeing some hopeful signs

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