'DfID has learned a lot' in Ebola response

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and Ebola survivor Will Pooley meet health care workers during a visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone. What lessons has U.K.’s aid agency learned from its Ebola response? Photo by: Tom Robinson RLC / Crown Copyright / DfID / CC BY

The U.K. Department for International Development is set to announce funding for projects that raise awareness of the Ebola virus in West African countries neighboring those affected by the epidemic, according to a global development insider.

U.K. Ebola Response Hub head Amanda Weisbaum told Devex that DfID is currently negotiating details of the program, and had selected Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau as target countries for yearlong interventions. These will promote preparedness for Ebola in case new infections appear. The current epidemic has killed almost 9,000 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“It will incorporate Ebola into the standard health messages of those countries, such as for malaria or [tuberculosis], while also strengthening all the services needed to deal with it,” she said. The hub she heads is an initiative that Bond — the U.K. membership body for nonprofit international development groups — and nongovernmental organization coalition Start Network set up in November to respond to the crisis.

While Weisbaum was unable to give details about the amount of funding available before DfID officially published details, she said it would not be a “big pot” and the funding was likely to be managed by the Start Network on DfID’s behalf.

She did tell Devex the approach is likely the result of lessons DfID has learned during its response to the outbreak.

“DfID’s focus from June to October was only treatment. Now it’s realizing social mobilization was a significant part of how to stop the spread of this disease,” she said, stressing that the U.K. aid agency should have recognized early on the importance of community mobilization. In addition, the Ebola Response Hub’s head argued DfID should have made more funding available earlier to smaller, community-based organizations.

“The smaller organizations did get funding, but DfID was initially only giving money for curative activities, such as building hospitals,” she noted.

Weisbaum said a key lesson to take from the recent outbreak is that smaller organizations with strong links to communities, having earned the trust of locals, must be used in similar crises. She believes DfID has noticed the benefits of engaging such partners, but doubts the department will change significantly the way it works in the future as a result. This, she suggested, is due to traditional funding structures and current coalition government budget cuts in the U.K. than a lack of willingness among DfID staff.

“Donors don’t want to fund small agencies, it costs them a lot of money to do that,” she said. “DfID is also being pared down.”

A DfID spokeswoman told Devex the department would “aim to apply lessons from our experience and that of our partners and beneficiaries to inform all our activities.” But the source could not provide details when asked to comment on whether it should have engaged earlier with community-based NGOs working in affected countries, and whether it would do so in the future.

The impact of community mobilization

One of the smaller, community-based organizations responding to the epidemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia was DfID-funded charity Y Care International. Director of International Programs Harriet Knox agreed that smaller agencies should have been part of the DfID-led, coordinated U.K. response sooner.

“Everybody was slow to react in a coordinated manner,” she conceded. “But local organizations were not slow because it was happening on their doorstep. An organization like DfID should be looking at those organizations first or at least with the same level of priority as going straight to their expert international organizations.”

YCI was able to adapt some of its live programs in country to respond to the disaster. Working through on-the-ground partners YMCA Liberia, YMCA Sierra Leone and others, it diverted funding toward emergency responses. Knox further said that while a donor like Comic Relief was swift to contact YCI and promote a new model of working, DfID was slower to act.

“We had one major program funded by DfID,” Knox explained. “On a month-by-month basis we had to report to them to say how Ebola was affecting our implementation. The question they should have been asking, which Comic Relief asked much earlier, is how do you want to adapt your work and how can we let you do that?”

She added that DfID approached YCI about how existing funding could be reallocated toward Ebola in October 2014. By January 2015, the department had still not approved YCI’s proposal.

Should DfID have approached the smaller community-based organizations it already funds in affected countries sooner to see if they could adapt programs and divert existing DfID funding to tackle Ebola? DfID is keeping its own counsel on this matter.

Openness and transparency

Global development professionals agree another lesson learned by agencies responding to the virus was the importance of openness and transparency. This, Weisbaum said, was shared by DfID, which supported the creation of the Ebola Response Hub and helped provide information for a section of the platform listing funding available to fight the virus.

DfID also allowed Bond to use money from an existing DfID grant to establish the resource and pay for Weisbaum and one other staff member to operate it until March 31, 2015. During the crisis, DfID became “more like a partner than a donor,” according to Weisbaum.

The hub aimed to collect and share information and best practices among more than 100 NGOs fighting the disease. Knox credits the hub for its resource-sharing initiative, which encouraged organizations to pool research.

“That doesn’t normally happen between agencies — people do their own research to get money for their own initiatives,” she noted.

In the current post-response period of learning and evaluation, Weisbaum hopes to harness that sentiment and is asking those involved to share their terms of reference for external evaluations of their Ebola response programs. She said this would reduce duplication of efforts.

“It would help people to see where the gaps are,” she said. “You don’t want a repetition of what happened in the first 20 days, why didn’t people get in earlier, or how should we have collaborated better.”

So far, no organizations have submitted their information. But the hub is set to continue beyond the end of March by being relocated into a different Bond group. And Weisbaum hopes the hub model will be replicated in the future when other similar disasters occur.

“We want to encourage people to be open and honest and do things in a different way,” she said.

A different future

The head of charity Goal’s Ebola response program Darren Hanniffy believes U.K. aid agencies will work together differently in the future as a result of the Ebola experience. He said his organization learned valuable lessons from other organizations on the ground, because partners were open about the difficulties they encountered.

Hanniffy also suggested DfID will change its approach, based on the evidence of how it operated during the crisis. The department “responded wholly and completely,” he said. “It became not just about funding, but very much a complete commitment at all levels.

“Even when it was unpopular and there was public outcry about aid workers traveling out there, and the hysteria created by the media about the virus, the British government stayed fast and consistently maintained the position that they weren’t going to back down, reduce their support or falter at providing staff,” he noted.

Hanniffy pointed to the fact DfID created a subdepartment to support agencies like Goal, which he said was “way beyond what was considered the normal relationship.” This supported human resources, insurance and setting up supply chains.

“DfID has learned a lot,” he concluded.

What changes should DfID consider implementing to improve responses to humanitarian crises? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.