The Blog

Are There Some Positive Lessons From the Ebola Crisis?

On 10 July the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea will meet at the United Nations with the major development agencies to come up with a plan to eradicate Ebola once and for all and to start rebuilding the affected countries. There will inevitably be calls that 'we must never let this happen again'. We shouldn't, but what lessons are we learning from the Ebola crisis and on whose behalf?

The first task for everyone involved remains to focus on reaching what President Koroma calls a "resilient zero" across all three countries. But as the intensity dissipates and resources are withdrawn, it is inevitable that we turn to "lessons learned". The thing is, the lessons we've heard so far have been largely negative and focused on the big international agencies: the WHO didn't do this, the American government could have done that, the global NGOs should have done... and so on. And to me that misses the point as to how we got to where we are in this unprecedented epidemic, which is as much about local leadership and local systems.

So I believe there are many positive lessons from the Ebola response and from within the countries that deserve a greater voice. Let me give you three:

The first is that the governments took the lead. Whether it was clear leadership from the Presidents - "they were at the heart of this response" says UN Special Envoy for Ebola, David Nabarro - the tireless commitment of those further down the chain of command or the community leaders and health workers on the front line, it is indisputable that Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans stepped up when it mattered most.

In the early days of the crisis, Presidents Sirleaf and Koroma saw that business as usual wasn't working. So they moved Ministers across departments to shore up their nation's ability to coordinate the major international response; including putting the military in charge in Sierra Leone. Strong local leaders like Tolbert Nywensah in Liberia and OB Sisay in Sierra Leone came to the fore and ensured that the response remained grounded in the realities of day to day life in West Africa. The mistake is to see the response as solely something done to the countries by outsiders - in fact much of it depended on local leadership, and this is the lesson we must apply more consistently in the future.

The second strength is how tight the partnership has been between the government and the international community. Often development can feel like a tug-of-war between donors and governments; on Ebola everyone was pulling on the same end of the rope. The Ebola command centres are a great example. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia all established 'war rooms' which brought together all organisations fighting the virus - government, donors, the US or British Military, and numerous NGOs. When critical decisions were needed, this is where it happened. It is not often in development that you can get everybody working on a single issue in a single room. And even less often does it feel like the government are leading the discussions. A new type of partnership was forged in the heat of the crisis and it should not be forgotten in the months ahead as donors are tempted to push their own priorities and structures into the governments' recovery plans.

And a final positive is the capacity the Ebola response will leave behind. The investment in the response has been massive, and it will leave a significant legacy. There is more capacity than ever to deal with the next crisis if they can be properly retained and redeployed. Legions of contact tracers, social mobilizers and crisis managers have experience in the most gruelling of circumstances. They'll be ready if another public health emergency - Ebola or not - rears its head again. A new generation of young people with much greater knowledge of basic hygiene and disease prevention can only bode well for the future. Already ideas are forming for how resources like Sierra Leone's 117 hotline can become permanent assets to communities.

The war with Ebola is not yet won, but it will be, and then it will be time for rebuilding. Moreover, the lasting impact on the affected countries will be how that recovery is handled: the ability to create jobs, stimulate the economy, to kickstart investment into critical infrastructure and of course to re-open schools and hospitals.

All this and more can be achieved and I firmly believe they can get back to and beyond where they were 12 months ago. But only if we truly learn and apply the lessons from the crisis: about the importance of local leadership and building not bypassing local systems. Of course there are important lessons to be learned at the international level, but perhaps the most important - for crises like this and development more generally - is that the best ideas and the people that really matter are in the country themselves. With the international community working together under government leadership real progress can be made. The UN meeting on the 10th of July would be a great time to start.

AGI's report 'State of emergency:How government fought Ebola' is published today.