From the mid-1990s on, I was on the ground in southern Africa where the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged out of control. Exacerbating the catastrophe were the very development partners and donors responsible for combating the disease. Rancorous competition for funds and turf wars often got in the way of progress. Looking back, I wonder if that would have been the case had the international response to HIV/AIDS displayed the leadership, cooperation and dedication apparent in Liberia's response to Ebola today.
As I work with dozens of donors and partners on the Ebola frontlines in Liberia, it's difficult to accept news reports of rampant disorganization, poor planning and infighting. These dispatches may reflect the initial challenges of pooling our resources in the most productive ways, but they have not told the entire story of the work taking place in Liberia in the battle against Ebola. My colleagues and I are working in harmony with one another and with Liberia's Ministry of Health. What's more, we see progress. Ebola infection rates are declining in Liberia, a testament to a level of cooperation that I haven't seen in 20 years of living and working in Africa.
Although the HIV epidemic was (and still is) so much worse than the Ebola epidemic, we never saw the same level of focus in terms of leading and coordinating the response. In the early days of HIV, we certainly did struggle with different groups competing for funds, but even when funding ceased to be a major issue, there was still a lot of competition for "territory" and for credit.
The Ebola epidemic has rallied development partners and donors that in the past have clashed over funding and intervention strategies. In my experience, this is highly unusual because donors and partners typically want to take exclusive credit for successful initiatives and interventions. But in the throes of this crisis, our responsibilities and goals are aligned with one another's and with those of the government. It's as if everyone believes that if we can get Liberia through this epidemic, it will be to the credit of all contributing partners.
Despite the obvious crisis that Ebola is in West Africa, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of working with such a dedicated and focused team under the able leadership of the Liberian government.
We're collaborating on one document, one strategy, one implementation plan, because we have been asked to by the Liberian leadership and because it is the right thing to do. Whether it is the communication strategy for the new national cemetery or the introduction of the NIH vaccine trials, we are all working together. And we are often finding ourselves doing things we have never done before.
Global Communities, an NGO with a long history of development work in Liberia, never imagined that it would be in the cemetery business, for example. But safe burial practices are critical to halting Ebola, and someone had to step up to the task. In partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW), Global Communities quickly scaled up its capacity to provide training, vehicles, logistical support and equipment to Liberian burial teams.
Another group, the National Mandingo Caucus of Liberia, a predominantly Muslim tribal organization, worked with the Mandingo diaspora to raise the money to buy and donate two ambulances to the Liberian government for use across the nation. The caucus worked with the MOHSW and the Red Cross to make sure that the fledgling ambulance team got the proper training and equipment.
Liberia's leaders in the battle against Ebola are exhibiting strength of character that I never saw when I was chief advisor to the head of the National AIDS Council in Zambia. Rather than making the decision for his country, the council's head often felt compelled to make decisions to appease donors.
In contrast, Liberian leadership doesn't try to keep donors happy if it comes at a cost to the country's long term welfare. I recently attended one meeting where a donor's plan to build a temporary communication hub was overruled by the Liberian leaders in attendance. "'No, we don't want that,'" he said. "'If you want to help us, please help us by investing in our plan.'"
I think that it is this caliber of leadership, cooperation and commitment (which is happening at all levels in the country) that is making the difference for Liberia. It is also the case that a little success breeds a lot more success: The more good news we see and hear, the more that people want to be a part of the solution.
Elizabeth Serlemitsos is country representative in Liberia for the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. Her email is email@example.com.