Paul Allen Foundation: It's up to all of us to stop the Ebola crisis in DRC

Health workers from the Alliance For International Medical Action are seen as they prepare the facility for patients at the Ebola treatment center in the town of Beni in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: REUTERS / Samuel Mambo

MANILA — The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is calling on both governments and private funders to step up and support Ebola response efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where deaths have now reached over 1,000.

“The world needed to pay a bit more attention to this outbreak,” said Paul Keating, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan Inc., a private company established by the late Microsoft co-founder to oversee his business and philanthropic works.

“We've been surprised and somewhat disappointed at how the international funding for this crisis has been lackluster. There's a degree of donor fatigue,” he added.

“There's a real chance to eliminate this [Ebola] as a global health threat.”

— Paul Keating, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan Inc.

While the response has more available tools at its disposal, such as experimental vaccines, issues such as insecurity and community mistrust continue to pose challenges to those working on the frontlines. The prolonged crisis, now on its 10th month, is also experiencing resource constraints, said Mike Ryan, new executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, during a media briefing last Friday.

“We have received $34 million dollars and have a current, urgent, critical financial gap of $54 million dollars. That's despite having spent over $35 million of our contingency fund since the beginning of the year. We continue to do that in order to stay in the response but that is not an inexhaustible fund and at the current time we have reached critical levels in our contingency capacity to support the response,” he said.

During the early part of the response, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation made an initial $1.5 million in emergency grant funding to organizations working on the frontlines. Last week, the foundation topped this with an additional $2.4 million under its Ebola Response Accelerator Challenge. The challenge sought innovative solutions on risk communication and community engagement, access, and data analysis.

“We had 58 proposals in all in a very short two-week challenged window, which was surprising and somewhat overwhelming response for us, which we fear speaks to the larger concerns around lack of resources available for this outbreak,” Keating said.

The three that stood out were from the National Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, WHO in partnership with the Université Catholique du Graben, and UNICEF. Each of their proposals tried to bring in a new way of operating, with a focus on tapping more local actors in the response and using mobile technology, he said.

“What's happening in the DRC today, is we don't have the environments in which scaled up response efforts are succeeding because of community mistrust, because of insecurity. And so we wanted to look for innovations in that space,” he said.

The foundation’s efforts are a way of honoring Paul Allen’s legacy, Keating said. The billionaire philanthropist died last year of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer. Through his foundation, Allen supported a number of causes, from climate change to ocean health. He also became involved in tackling Ebola. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014, he pledged to commit up to $100 million for the response.

His involvement with Ebola extended into other health crises with pandemic potential. In 2016, he committed funding to support efforts to contain the Zika outbreak.

But whether addressing outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika will be part of the longer term priorities of the foundation remains to be seen.

“We're in process of still trying to determine the way forward with the overall foundation approach. We will absolutely be taking the learnings from this outbreak response and feeding that into those deliberations. But at this stage, we're being very focused in our effort,” Keating said.

But the foundation aims to stay engaged with the different actors working to stem the current Ebola outbreak, such as WHO and the Congolese government, and see where else can it and other funders come in and provide support. It is exploring ways on how to advocate to others, public and private donors, and join them in financing the response.

“Governments and private funders must invest at this critical juncture. It's up to all of us to be stopping Ebola in the DRC. I think there really is an opportunity for us to stop this disease here, at this point, and then with the vaccines and other tools that are available for the future, there's a real chance to eliminate this as a global health threat,” Keating said.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.