Monrovia: October 3, 2014
Not so many years ago, I was part of a team monitoring and preparing humanitarian interventions to address the effects of drought in a certain region in eastern Africa. In our meeting room in London, we assessed the needs based on the latest information; our goal was to preposition lifesaving supplies and experts for rapid deployment. Then news about the rains emerged. This I greeted with optimistic fists. The crops will emerge again, waterholes will be filled, and the cattle will have their grazing fields.
The communities that have lived through several experiences of drought were less enthusiastic, members of the response team that had worked in drought affected regions were cautiously optimistic. Their experiences told them something that we would later come to understand.
The caked earth could not absorb the deluge of rain. Where there was once an absence of water, it poured in abundance. The drought was followed very easily by a flood. The response paradigm had to be adjusted, luckily the same life saving supplies were needed. More water purification pills where added.
In Ebola-hit Liberia, the international call to assist has been answered with supplies, personnel and funds. Writing for the VOA, Lisa Schlein anchored the magnitude of the international assistance ‘a number of countries are sending thousands of doctors, nurses, technicians and support to West Africa. The United Nations has approved a one billion dollar response plan[i]’.
Yet local people know that pledges take time to materialize into reality and the situation on the ground even dictates that much more is needed so that intervention exceeds need.
The deluge of international assistance can have inadvertent effects on local initiatives and efforts. A local group, ‘Girls As Partners’ in a community near Monrovia had undertaken at their own expense awareness raising while providing sanitary products for hand washing. As news about international assistance poured in, community perception and reaction to the group’s intention and initiative was questioned. Where they once received cooperation, they faced doubt from local residents.
Schools all across Liberia are close. The idea of bringing kids together in one place to organize events is discouraged. Yet the creative insight of one woman in her local community has pioneered the idea of school kits to be distributed into homes. Initial supplies for the kits were mobilized through donations from the local community.[ii]
Another community resident has provided cash relief to teachers, especially those employed with private schools. Most private schools are unable to meet their wage bill due to school closure since revenue is tied to tuition and other fees pay by the students[iii].
Many communities around Monrovia fund raise to provide food, water and basic supplies to families placed under voluntary isolation for the 21 days required as the incubation threshold for the virus.
A senior official of the Liberian government acting in his private capacity has mobilized local residents to clean rubbish from the beach in the vicinity of a hotel that accommodates aid workers. His effort was motivated out of a need to show appreciation to the foreign guests.
A Liberian doctor visited residents of his local community distributing gloves as protective gear to apply at home, if they are to touch a sick person.
A local group has mobilized resources through Liberians in the diaspora to provide financial assistance to persons who have survived the Ebola virus disease. These persons return to communities where most of their personal belongings may have been destroyed as a preventive measure.
The list of what communities and individuals are doing to assist with the task of stemming the virus spread is endless.
Another narrative is one that highlights notions such as community ignorance, disbelief, suspicion, fear, denial, stigma and misinformation. A problematic narrative failing to see the other important side of the coin. What are the community based systems and networks in Liberia doing, and how can they be assisted?
Communities all across Liberia has valuable irreplaceable capacities, understanding of the local contexts and better awareness of the risks they face.
Quoted in the Los Angeles Tims, Tom Kenyon, and Director of the US Center for Disease Control’s Center for Global Health drove the point home ‘I think the power of bringing this under control is in the hands of Liberians[iv].’
Liberia is not yet a caked parched earth unable to absorb the deluge of assistance. This is the case because much more assistance is still needed on the ground in terms of personnel, supplies and logistics. The time horizon between financial commitment and actual delivery means most pledges are yet to hit the ground. But down will come this deluge of assistance. It will be important that such assistance targets and support community based efforts, that the core underlying deficits in the health care system that has been exposed by Ebola will be addressed, and that better waste disposal and more investment in water and sanitation interventions will be collateral benefits not to measure the economic and other social consequences.
Charles Tye Lawrence lives and works in Liberia and writes in his personal capacity.
[i] Schlein, Lisa ’West Africa: Scientists Project Tens of Thousands of Ebola Cases’ Voice of America, Allafrica.com September 23, 2014.
[ii] Frontpage Africa ‘Woman Keeping Kids Engaged Under Liberia’s State of Emergency’ Septmeber 23, 2014
[iii] Ibid ’Liberia: District #6 Montserrado County Teachers Get Ebola Take Home Loan’ September 23, 2014
[iv] Los Angeles Times ’A Whisper of Hope in Liberia Fight against Ebola deaths’ October 1, 2014