The Ebola Opportunity
Blair Glencorse and Ashoka Mukpo argue that in the wake of Ebola attention must turn to supporting internal reformers to strengthen relationships between citizens and the state.
“A few weeks ago there were plenty of cases” says Mohammed, a trader from a bustling market neighborhood of Monrovia, “but now Ebola- it has dropped”. In Liberia, the country hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak, there are now hopeful signs that the virus is being brought under some level of control. The latest World Health Organization situation report indicates that the number of new cases has stabilized. NPR wrote last month that there were just 8 Ebola cases in Liberia’s biggest treatment center. This is good news, although experts warn that the country must continue to stay vigilant.
Liberians and their international partners now need to begin thinking collectively about why this disaster spun out of control so quickly. The response to Ebola was largely technical, as health experts rushed to catch up with the outbreak. But a key reason why the disease claimed so many lives was political. During the early days of Ebola, people in Liberia scoffed at it, believing that officials had invented the outbreak as a way to steal aid dollars. This perception had its roots in a widespread sentiment of mistrust Liberians feel towards their government. While it took Ebola to fully expose the festering danger of this mistrust, it was already eating away at Liberia’s social fabric.
It would be unfair to lay all the blame for the outbreak on the doorstep of the Liberian government. The administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made real progress on some indicators for development in recent years. Moreover few if any countries in the region have health care systems that could have withstood Ebola’s onslaught. But it would be a mistake to think that the lessons of this terrible year are limited to the health sector alone. After a lengthy post-war period where the international community poured billions of dollars into reconstruction, Liberia remains a fragile state whose citizenry is deeply wary of its government.
Liberia is a small country that tends to cross the radar of Western audiences only in its worst moments. In the 1990s the world gaped at scenes of drug-addled child soldiers and this past year we watched in horror as people died en masse in front of closed hospitals. Between these moments, the country falls back into obscurity along with its neighbors. But Ebola showed us that what happens during these lulls in newsworthiness dictates how future crises will unfold. It is thus critical that the world redoubles its efforts to help Liberia build an inclusive society where people trust both their own leaders and the outside world.
Liberian officials have been quick to point to the impressive growth rates that the country achieved in recent years. These figures only reveal part of the picture. Despite billions of dollars pledged by foreign investors in recent years, many Liberians complain that their day-to-day lives are as difficult as ever. Coupled with the widespread experience of public institutions working only for those with wealth, this has led many to assume that money is being siphoned away. Part of the problem is structural: most of the growth has occurred in extractive sectors that create few jobs, and revenues have thus far been too low to finance the kind of social services that Liberians expect.
Still, structural economic obstacles don’t entirely explain the frustration of the Liberian street. Agencies that were set up to weed out corrupt officials have been de-fanged, and the government’s defensive posture towards its critics hasn’t helped. Last year the Editor-in-Chief of a major newspaper was thrown in jail on trumped up charges of slander, and President Johnson-Sirleaf herself ominously warned that outspoken watchdog groups were “challenging national sovereignty.” This heavy-handed attitude was at the heart of the tragic incident in August when Army troops fired at members of a quarantined community, killing a teenager.
Fortunately, Liberia is filled with talented and committed people who are working towards a more cohesive, fair, and accountable society. Some are in government, others are not. The question now is how to enable these reformers to bridge the gap between state and citizen. Popular mistrust of government entrenched itself during a long history of elitism, exploitation, and neglect. Addressing this toxic sentiment will require better community outreach and devolution of some power to the local level. Donors and other friends of Liberia will have a role in pressing the government to fix broken anti-corruption agencies and to refrain from using force against citizens.
Aid will inevitably be necessary to stave off the worst economic effects of Ebola, and should be diverted towards social services that benefit the poor such as health care and housing. To make sure that this aid is transformative, one need look no further than the heroes of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak: the Liberian people, who showed their patriotic spirit in ambulances, clinics, and awareness efforts. By giving communities a greater role in selecting local officials and monitoring how funds are spent, development might start to feel like a group effort rather than the province of distant elites. As Mohammed says, “In our community, we realized it was our responsibility to change behavior and take care of ourselves.”
Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab in Liberia. Ashoka Mukpo is a journalist and former civil society advocate who contracted Ebola in Liberia.