Is Ebola response repeating mistakes made in Haiti?

A health worker takes the temperature of a man in Liberia. With the aid community too focused on eliminating the disease in the country, could it lose sight of the country's other development issues and opportunities? Photo by: Simon Ruf / UNMEER / CC BY-ND

As the international Ebola response approaches the “last mile” in Liberia, experts worry the laser focus of foreign aid efforts on achieving zero Ebola cases could hurt, or even crowd out Liberia’s own efforts to rebuild.

The concern is an eerie echo of what happened five years ago after the Haiti earthquake, when a blitz of aid organizations created chaos and delayed disaster relief projects, potentially derailing national efforts to rebuild.

“The money for Ebola is not actually coming to Liberia.” the Liberian minister of public works, W. Gyude Moore, said at a Center for Global Development event on a post-Ebola Liberia.

“And in terms of Ebola response, the aid infrastructure to respond to Ebola does not translate into permanent structures, most of them are tents, it’s going to be very different to imagine a more permanent response,” Moore added.

Just as the Haitian government was quick to propose multiyear plans for rebuilding infrastructure, Liberia will propose its post-Ebola health plan later this month. Moore put forth his own signature initiative called Roads to Health, a plan to pave Liberia’s roads with more consideration for the remote location of health clinics.

Another strategy, based on a Clinton Health Initiative project implemented in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, will use a rotating faculty from 26 American universities to train Liberian health staff. Moore said the plan will cost $270 million over 10 years.

Moore and other experts, including Amanda Glassman, the director of global health policy and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, fear that overzealous aid groups, while well-intentioned, could derail these national ambitions.

“Comparing Haiti five years on and [the Ebola] response, there is a similar magnitude financially,” she told Devex, “I fear we’re going to be the ‘republic of NGOs’ Haiti-style all over again.”

Taking the stated “zero cases” approach literally could make matters worse. With aid organizations too focused on eliminating the disease, Glassman explained, they could lose sight of other issues and opportunities to make Liberia more aid-independent.

“Zero cases, yes that can be the goal,” she said, “but we can’t wait to do the rest until zero cases.”

What other similarities do you see between the post-Ebola aid response and the Haiti crisis five years ago? How can international aid groups take a more country-based approach in their efforts and funding?

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.