Obama's new Ebola czar — and what it means for US aid work on the ground

Ron Klain (center), the newly appointed U.S. Ebola czar, with U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and Cynthia Hogan (left), former counsel to Vice President Joe Biden in May 2009 at the White House. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

As the international aid community grappled with the Ebola crisis in West Africa in October, the United States went a step further in its fraught strategy to contain the disease by designating an Ebola response coordinator.

On Oct. 17, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Ron Klain as his “Ebola czar.”

With a background in law and politics, Klain manages the U.S. response to the virus. But what does the role mean for development professionals working on the ground to contain the disease?

That’s still unclear, even within the U.S. government’s hefty development agency.

“I have no idea yet,” John Langlois, senior regional adviser for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Oct. 21 on the sidelines of an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives. “It might help, it might not.”

Langlois cautioned that the U.S. government has a real interest in making sure Ebola is contained and controlled domestically, and that the new Ebola czar may spend the majority of his time focused on building capacity for U.S. hospitals and domestic response teams rather than coordinating the U.S. government’s international response.

But not everyone agreed with the USAID official.

Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Ebola czar could relieve public health professionals from the pressures of congressional hearings and political flack, allowing them to ensure that aid workers in West Africa are doing their jobs in the most efficient and coordinated way possible.

“To my mind it gives the public health professionals a little bit of space to do their job,” she noted.

“It might help, it might not.”

— John Langlois, senior regional adviser for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development

Pauline Baker, president emeritus of the Fund for Peace, hopes the new Ebola czar will think globally and brings U.S. aid workers to the table to coordinate, find the gaps and build a more effective international strategy — a strategy that in her view should include the voices of those West African countries that have to date successfully fended off the virus, like Senegal and Nigeria.

However, Baker admitted, “I don’t know what authority he’s got.”

Obama’s decision to appoint an Ebola czar was a step in the right direction, according to International Organization for Migration Director General William Swing.

“What it does, it gives you a senior coordination point that can keep everybody informed and bring everybody together,” Swing said. “That’s what most of these czars do.”

Do you think Obama’s decision to appoint an Ebola czar has helped step up U.S. efforts to contain the disease? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.