UK steps up funding for Ebola response, tells other donors situation is 'on a knife-edge'

A general view shows the triage where patients are registered after Ebola screening upon entering the General Hospital in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: REUTERS / Olivia Acland

MANILA — Rory Stewart, the U.K. secretary of state for international development, announced $63 million in new funding for the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Monday in Geneva, Switzerland, while calling on other donors to be “significantly more generous” than what they’ve given to date.

“The British government has so far put in approximately $45 million. I’ve just authorized up to an additional $63 million from the British government going forward,” he said during the high-level meeting on Ebola in DRC hosted by the World Health Organization. A spokeswoman for the U.K. Department for International Development has confirmed that the figures are specifically for the Ebola response, but details are scant on how the money will be spent.

“Our real priority has to still be surveillance, contact tracing, vaccination, and above all just getting the basics right.”

— Rory Stewart, U.K. secretary of state for international development

Stewart, who just recently was on the ground in DRC’s Katwa, Butembo, and Goma, told government representatives and response actors in the room that the situation is “literally on a knife-edge” and that there is no room for complacency. Donors should provide money now to prevent spending more later.

“What I’ve noticed going around the world trying to get people in this room to contribute is there are lots of very intellectual and sophisticated reasons that international donors give for why they didn’t want to give any more money. So there are any number of ambassadors in this room who can give me a fantastic exposition on the complexity of operating … in DRC,” the U.K. aid chief said.

Some will talk about the militarization of the conflict, politics, or anxieties around preparedness efforts, but none of that is an excuse to not support the response, he said.

“There are some donors around this table who somehow believe it’s all funded. The World Bank has been making very positive comments about how they’ve got it all under control. They haven’t,” he said.

“To put it very bluntly: We have about half the number of WHO staff that we should have doing preparedness in places like Burundi and South Sudan because the money is simply not coming through,” he added.

A number of stakeholders spoke about the outstanding challenges in the response, such as gaining communities’ trust and the need to provide a more holistic response that addresses the root causes of the outbreak, such as poverty and conflict.

But Stewart appealed to those in the room to focus their priorities.

“Our real priority has to still be surveillance, contact tracing, vaccination, and above all just getting the basics right … like [having] the protective equipment in the clinics, making sure that people are not reusing their syringes and gloves, which I saw even on my most recent visit in DRC,” he said.

“We would like to encourage others to stick with us and not get too caught up with the intellectualism of profound statements about development, but really provide the flexible money that partners like WHO require on the ground,” he argued.

Financial transparency and accountability

Other donors also announced “new” contributions, including €300,000 ($337,125) in emergency aid for WHO from Italy; €150,000 from Finland for WHO’s contingency fund for emergencies; as well as a $5 million pledge from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation to help better integrate maternal and reproductive health services into the Ebola response.

Others talked about the funding they’ve provided to date, although most are a mix of support for the Ebola response, the wider humanitarian response plan for DRC, in-kind, and personnel support, or through their bilateral cooperation with the DRC government, making it difficult to provide a full picture of how much is actually going to the response. Donor support comes in different forms and coursed through multiple funding platforms.

Most of World Bank funding for the response comes from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility and its concessional lending arm, the International Development Association.

In addition to the support provided by individual European Union member states, the EU said it has provided €20 million since 2018 in DRC and for preparedness efforts in neighboring countries. It has also provided in-kind assistance such as dedicated humanitarian flights to affected areas of DRC, support to the health sector, and in helping fund the development of an Ebola vaccine.

The United States, which claimed to be the largest bilateral donor to the response, said it has contributed over $98 million in “humanitarian response toward the outbreak within the DRC,” “extensive” technical assistance to DRC and neighboring countries as well as WHO, and plans to “provide more in the coming months.”

Tim Ziemer, senior deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, spoke recently about the need to put financial transparency and accountability in the response, arguing that to get donors to step up its investments, there needs to be clarity on where the cash is, and where are the gaps in funding.

A ‘fraction’ of the West Africa Ebola funding

Q&A: Ebola has reached Goma — what does it mean for the response?

With a confirmed case of Ebola in a major urban center, Devex speaks with Dr. Emanuele Capobianco, global director of health and care at IFRC, about the significance of the case.

The event took place just as the DRC ministry of health confirmed Sunday the first Ebola case in Goma, North Kivu’s capital, that sits at the border with Rwanda. Response actors are cautiously optimistic in containing the further spread of the virus in the city, which has a population size of over 2 million people.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he will reconvene the Emergency Committee “as soon as possible” with this latest development.

Over the weekend, two Ebola health workers also became the latest victims in a string of attacks against health workers and health facilities in the outbreak. Tedros said the two health workers were “murdered in their home in Beni.”

But with yet another city to respond to, aid actors appealed to donors for more financial support both for the response and Ebola preparedness efforts. While not a pledging conference, they were hoping the high-level event would raise the profile of the crisis, which has received very little compared to what was given during the early phase of the West Africa Ebola outbreak.

“In the first phase of the West Africa outbreak, there was more than $2 billion in international support provided. What we have available to us so far in the DRC is just a small fraction of that,” said Mark Lowcock, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator and head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Donors made contributions for the first two strategic response plans in the current outbreak, but more is needed, he said.

“We need to be honest with ourselves about the real cost of getting to zero cases,” he added.

Devex reached out to OCHA for a breakdown of funding provided to date for Ebola, but was told they only have the figures for the public health part of the response provided by WHO.

Of the $148 million ask for the Ebola response under the third strategic response plan ending this July, only $109.33 million has been received, according to the most recent available data on the financial requirements for the response.

This leaves a gap of over $38 million, but a closer look at the financial breakdown shows some pillars of the response receive more funding than others. For example, surveillance activities have a funding gap of $5.29 million, but infection prevention and control activities have a surplus of $2.95 million.

The upcoming fourth strategic response plan for the Ebola outbreak in DRC will require a larger budget of around $300 million, according to figures provided by DRC health minister Oly Ilunga during the event.

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.