Our Perspectives

Development for the People


market scene in LiberiaA laundry basket vendor on the streets of Monrovia, Liberia (Photo: Carly Learson/UNDP)

If the Ebola outbreak is not contained soon, most of the economic and social gains achieved since peace was restored in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and since Guinea’s democratic transition began, could be reversed.

In Liberia, 60% of markets are now closed; in Sierra Leone, only one-fifth of the 10,000 HIV patients who are on anti-retroviral treatments are still receiving them; and Guinea’s government is reporting a $220 million financing gap because of the crisis.

All three countries remain fragile, divided, and, as the current crisis highlights, uniquely prone to shocks. More broadly, the region’s current crisis should inspire reflection about how the world supports and advances development.
One important reason for these countries’ vulnerability is the consistent lack of investment in their populations, which has prevented ordinary citizens from reaping the benefits of economic growth.

The threat that Ebola poses in all three countries extends beyond health care. Throughout the region, a history of conflict and a legacy of poor governance have fueled a deep distrust of governments and state institutions, as indicated in a 2012 Afrobarometer survey. Indeed, these countries’ lack of an established social contract has been the main obstacle to establishing political authority and effective governance.

With a highly contagious and lethal virus devastating poor and fragmented societies that distrust their leaders, business as usual is not enough. The only way to halt the current Ebola outbreak, and prevent similar epidemics, is to address the fundamental social and political vulnerabilities that have allowed the virus to flourish.

The key is to place people at the center of development efforts, by increasing investments in health care, education, and other public services. At the same time, a strong effort must be made to bolster job creation. With a reliable support structure and adequate economic opportunity, households – and, in turn, countries – become more resilient.

Those at the forefront of the fight against Ebola – including the United Nations Development Program – have been mobilizing communities against the disease, supporting medical teams, and helping survivors and families of the infected cope with the tragedy. While these efforts could not be more important, they must be backed by a longer-term strategy to strengthen these fragile countries’ defenses.

Ebola will be defeated, but the vulnerabilities that this outbreak has exposed should spur a fundamental shift in focus among policymakers. The only way to boost a society’s resilience and ability to trust impersonal institutions is to give the people who comprise it the tools – and confidence – they need to prosper

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