Ebola: Fixing a crisis of trust

2014-10-26 15:00

Kate Thomas: Of all three countries affected by Ebola, Liberia has been hit hardest, with the highest case load. Why do you think that is?

Blair Glencorse: One reason Liberia is having such a difficult time with Ebola is to do with the exclusionary nature of power and resources throughout Liberia’s history. The country has been controlled by a small group of elites for a long, long time. It’s an extractive [mining] society where a small group of people is pulling a lot of the resources out and not putting a lot back in. If you combine that with the economic problems and now health problems, you have a combustible combination. You have a lot of people who feel excluded, who have no stake in the system and who have no sense of upward social mobility.

From the beginning of the outbreak there was a crisis of trust in Liberia and a gap in terms of adequate information about the virus and how it spreads. How has this fuelled the spread of Ebola?

Many people didn’t have access to reliable information from the outset, or if they did, they didn’t necessarily have much faith in it. Because people had become used to a legacy of mismanagement and corruption, the government was not a trusted voice. In the Liberian slum community of West Point, there was no communication about plans to quarantine the area in August. People just woke up one morning to find the community quarantined.

We also have to look at the international community and its input. International actors are not always good at understanding the relationships and the incentives that drive behaviour in Liberia, and they don’t always take the time to really understand them.

The Liberian health system is a classic example: a lot of effort has been put into trying to train Liberian doctors and healthcare workers, but as soon as a crisis like this arises, it falls to bits.

We haven’t built the softer understanding of how people interact with each other and what the cultural norms are in times of crises.

What role can civil society play in building solutions to such emergencies?

Civil society groups engage people who will then hold the government accountable for its promises. The younger generation in Liberia is less entrenched in patronage networks, and is more creative and more in touch with technology. I think it’s about spending time building leadership, not just betting on winners and then expecting them to deliver.

The youth of Liberia are obviously the future of the country.

There are a lot of very talented, committed young people who know a different history.

They are better connected than ever before. They have a different vision for their country and they can be more collaborative and collectively work toward shared solutions in a way that some of the older generations find more difficult because of the divisions that have existed and the things that they had to live through.

What lessons have been learnt from the way this outbreak was handled? How might future crises of the same scale be prevented?

We would argue that what needs to be built is a sense of accountability between citizens and government, a sense of integrity. It’s not good enough just to put rules in place and then expect them to work when they don’t fit behaviour. The key is to move beyond the dependency that’s characterised the international aid system, toward a more creative, imaginative future in which Liberians are given the space to try new things and are supported in ways that allow them to do that.

Thomas is Ebola Deeply managing editor. The interview was carried on www.eboladeeply.org

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