Restless Development Sierra Leone conducted interviews for the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa’s report on Lessons from Ebola-affected communities. Rhianna Ilube, Support Officer for the International Youth Engagement Unit, attended the launch of the report.
As I walked through London last night, opposites played in my mind: trust and fear.
I had just attended an event at the Houses of Parliament: Lessons from Ebola Affected Communities: Being prepared for future health crises. As a fresh addition to the Restless Development family, I felt proud to see Kate Muhwezi, our Director of People and Performance, speaking on the role of youth as community mobilisers throughout the Ebola epidemic. I was equally proud to see Samara Linton, a great friend and all-round inspiring young woman, representing Polygeia, the student-led global health policy think-tank. They shared their research findings and experiences with the Department for International Development’s Minister Nick Hurd MP and a room full of global-health experts and practitioners.
By January 2016, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa had killed 11,316 people. The UK government responded throughout with £427million worth of medical, technical and logistical support. Yet on reflection, international actors stressed repeatedly that the response was hindered by fear and a lack of trust between national actors, international actors and affected communities.
Hearing this reminded me of an interview I once conducted with Chernor Bah, an advocate for global education from Sierra Leone. He spoke of his frustration at the short-term perspective of the international response. For him, affected communities were often not treated as human beings, but rather as symptoms of crisis. Yet Ebola represents an opportunity to regard individuals and their issues in a new light. Holistically. Honestly. Deeper problems need to be addressed, including: access to education, human capacity and politics.
There was a life before; there will be life after. See life as a continuum. See people as human beings, not as a series of crises.” – Chernor Bah.
To this end, Restless Development trained and supported 2,851 full-time community mobilisers – a great majority of whom were youth – who led active efforts to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone. As part of a larger movement, we can use past experience and inclusive research to learn the lessons for the future.
At the #EbolaLessons event, I heard about the importance of:
If affected communities do not trust humanitarian response efforts, it will be extremely difficult to succeed in controlling emergencies. Tom Hird (Polygeia) lamented the use of “fear based messaging” and the dominance of the military in response to the Zika virus in South America. Kate agreed, acknowledging that “growing the trust agenda was so vital” when Restless Development worked with young mobilizers to lead the Ebola response.
“Clinic attendance has been low…a lot of other people died not from Ebola, but from the fear to go to hospital when they are sick.” (Interviews from Port Loko Town, Port Loko District, Sierra Leone)
The diversity of the UK should be celebrated as both an important factor and national strength in ensuring an effective emergency response. Samara (Polygeia) called for groups from the diaspora to be actively included in international programme planning and policymaking.
Local Leaders and Community Engagement
The most powerful words across the panel emphasised the role of local leaders and community engagement as absolutely critical to any emergency response. As Kate from Restless Development put it:
“Community engagement is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself….Communities with a voice and structure for participating can maintain accountability and act as a stronger surveillance mechanism than any development organization can build.”