African answers to Ebola

Africa’s private sector brings capabilities that are not available in other institutions to the figh

An electronic information board on Ebola in Lagos, Nigeria [AFP]

Business leaders gathered in Addis Ababa on November 8 and pledged $28.5m to help the African Union mobilise, train and deploy healthcare workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to fight the spread of Ebola.

So far, African countries have pledged to send over 2,000 health workers to the affected countries. This includes teams of doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, lab technicians and the necessary support staff. In addition, the health workers need functioning equipment.

The complexity and scale of such an operation is qualitatively different from activities such as food relief. It therefore requires careful planning and systematic execution in regions with limited functioning basic or medical infrastructure.

Funding is only part of the resources needed to deploy the health workers. The bulk of the needs include training health workers, sourcing medical supplies, providing logistical support and extending insurance cover for volunteers.

To bring in different competencies, the chairperson of the African Union, Dr Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma, convened the November 8 Africa Business Round-table on Ebola in Addis Ababa. The round-table were Dr Donald round-table, president of the African Development Bank, and Dr Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Limits exposed

Africa has historically relied on government agencies and civil society to respond to emergencies, but the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has exposed the limits of this model. The initial response to the outbreak was sluggish, poorly funded and suffered from serious logistical challenges. Government actions to contain the outbreak by stopping flights backfired as no supplies could reach the affected areas.

Inside Story – Ebola: Winning a battle but losing the war?

Many observers have argued that reductions in funding accounted for the catastrophic failure of the World Health Organization (WHO) to contain the outbreak. This may be true but the real issue is that the scale of operations needed to safeguard public health in any country cannot be outsourced to international organisations.

These entities do not have analytical, technical, financial, logistical, and organisational capabilities to do the job. The private sector does.

Right from the outset the private sector insisted on a clear goal around which to rally support. The fact that the African Union is headed by a medical doctor brought unique technical expertise to the assessment of the needs.

Dr Dlamini-Zuma insisted on the urgency to train and deploy health workers through established government machinery.

“We can, we must and will defeat Ebola, but we must also do more and do it faster,” she said.

Leadership in mobilising private sector engagement was provided by Strive Masiyiwa, founder of the global telecommunications firm Econet Wireless. The roundtable was attended by CEOs from a wide spectrum of industries covering banking, telecommunications, mining, energy, and services.

Commitment to long-term response

By the time of the meeting, considerable groundwork had been done. Probably the most important aspect of the roundtable was a commitment by the participants to a long-term response to the Ebola crisis. The pledges were only the beginning of process that will include the economic reconstruction of the affected countries. The roundtable will become an annual African Union event focused on strengthening cooperation between government and the private sector.

Though tragic, Ebola has forced Africa to rediscover its own inner capabilities and find novel ways of harnessing it. The way ahead will involve closer interactions between government, business and academia. It is a new beginning for Africa.

The fund is established under the auspices of the African Union Foundation and will be managed by the African Development Bank. A governing body is being set up to oversee the operations of the fund.

The long-term approach taken by the private sector includes a pledge to support the creation of a research institute on infectious diseases. This pledge opens up opportunities to extend cooperation to universities and other research institutes. The circle of interactions will, in the future, include government, enterprises and academia with a focus on problem-solving.

The roundtable also expressed concern over the impact of stigmatisation on economic recovery. As Lopes noted, stigmatisation “is hurting not just those suffering from Ebola, but the continent as a whole”.

But he also offered an optimistic outlook by noting that West Africa’s growth continues to be robust despite the outbreak. The sub-region recorded the highest growth rate of any part of Africa in 2013, and is projected to remain above 6 percent.

The whole of West Africa accounts for close to a third of Africa’s GDP with the three affected countries representing less than 1 percent.

“In fact, even if all the three countries were to register zero growth it would dent only 0.19 percent of the West African GDP and 0.05 percent of Africa as a whole,” Lopes noted.

The overall mood of at the round-table was about Africa taking ownership and remaining optimistic. As Dr Kaberuka said: “Ebola is first and foremost our problem. Before relying on international aid, we must first encourage Africans to take action.”

Though tragic, Ebola has forced Africa to rediscover its own inner capabilities and find novel ways of harnessing it. The way ahead will involve closer interactions between government, business and academia. It is a new beginning for Africa.

Calestous Juma is Dr Martin Luther King, Jr Visiting Professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is on leave from Harvard Kennedy School where he is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation and Economic Development Programme as well as the Edward S Mason Fellows Programme. He is the author of “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa”.