Helen Clark: Speech at the Briefing to the UN General Assembly on Progress of Ebola Outbreak Response and the Road Towards Recovery

Jan 13, 2016

I am pleased to participate in this briefing for the UN General Assembly on the progress of the Ebola outbreak response and on the road towards recovery. Let me begin by thanking the President of the General Assembly for convening this important high-level briefing, which helps keep international attention on the ongoing needs of the countries which were so severely impacted by Ebola. 

I am also pleased that we are joined by a survivor of Ebola. The survivors have faced many challenges – first in fighting the disease and then its longer term physical impacts, and many have also faced a lack of acceptance, loss of livelihoods, and even discrimination in their communities.  

The Governments of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are all to be commended for the leadership they gave to the fight against Ebola and for their dedication to reaching zero Ebola cases. 

I also acknowledge all other partners who contributed to ending the outbreak – bilateral and multilateral partners, African regional organizations, the Red Cross movement, NGOs, CSOs, academic and research organizations, and the private sector.

On the frontline of the response, there were throughout the outbreak the dedicated and tireless efforts of national, international, and non-governmental medical personnel, community leaders, volunteers, and others. Many of these people faced enormous personal risk in their efforts to stop the spread of the disease and help the sick. Some paid for that with their lives; other are survivors of the disease. We owe them a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. 

Ebola and the road to recovery

The Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone infected an estimated 28,637 people and claimed the lives of approximately 11,315 people, including hundreds of doctors and other medical personnel. In total, six West African countries were impacted, and the impacts were also felt in countries far beyond the region . 

The epidemic halted the rapid growth rates which the three epicentre countries had been experiencing. Agriculture, which accounts for a large share of GDP and livelihoods, was affected, along with construction, mining, and the service sectors. Many people lost their jobs and livelihoods, and social cohesion was undermined.  

The national recovery planning which began in late 2014 aimed to deal with what was both a health and a development crisis. The Stop and Treat phase remained a top priority, while planning also ensued for resumed development and retaining the capacity to contain any future outbreaks.  

Thus, the early recovery approaches supported by the three governments and the UN and other national, regional, and international partners initially focused on strengthening in three key areas:

1. government capacities to co-ordinate early recovery interventions and the timely delivery of recovery programmes;
2.  co-ordination and delivery of essential health and other
basic services; and
3.  prevention, preparedness, and response mechanisms which engage communities.  

Early recovery activities got underway in a number of communities in late 2014. For example, in Liberia, after the ban in bush meat trading, UNDP worked with former bush meat traders, helping them with cash payments and business training to replace lost income, invest in alternative livelihoods, and pay down debts. 

In Guinea’s forest region in the latter half of 2015, UN agencies helped rehabilitate health and community centres and improve sanitation and garbage collection in four urban districts. Support was provided to community infrastructure programs, including for the construction of latrine blocks in bus stations and small bridges generating incomes for 1,549 youth through cash for work initiatives. Farmers’ organizations were provided with fertilizer and seeds for rice cultivation in the forest region. 

The Governments and the international community rallied behind the recovery agenda. In November 2014, the Secretary-General tasked UNDP to lead for the UN on working with partners on an Ebola Recovery Assessment. A coalition was mobilized from among the UN agencies, the African Development Bank, the European Union, and the World Bank. It liaised closely with the three governments, the Mano River Union, and ECOWAS. The outcomes of the Ebola Recovery Assessment were designed to feed into national recovery strategies. The assessment also took on board a call by the Peace Building Commission to consider the impact of the Ebola crisis on peacebuilding efforts, since all three countries remain on the agenda of the Commission.

From the earliest days of recovery, UNDP worked to ensure that the efforts reached the most marginalized. In Sierra Leone, for example, UNDP supported over 1,000 people with disabilities, not only endeavoring to keep them safe from Ebola, but also, thanks to the Panasonic Solar Lamps made available, more children from families with people with disabilities were able to study at night.
    
Building on the experience of its partnership with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, UNDP was able to support strengthening health system capacity and health governance. Although UNDP is not a Principal Recipient of Global Fund monies in the Ebola-affected countries, governments asked UNDP to assist with the re-activation of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria services, ensuring that case detection was reinitiated as soon as possible and that life-saving treatments continued uninterrupted.

Early signs of recovery

In the first half of last year, each of the three countries and the Mano River Union worked closely together on their medium and longer term recovery strategies to ensure they were complementary: the national strategies outlined country-specific activities, while the Mano River Union plan focused on sub-regional and cross-border issues. Together, the overarching objectives of these plans were to: 

1. halt the epidemic and prevent future outbreaks; 
2. restore and strengthen capacity in public services, including health services;
3. restore livelihoods and build community and national resilience; and 
4 address structural and other factors which had made containment of Ebola difficult. 

The United Nations and other partners were pleased to contribute to the development of these strategies. 

The national and Mano River Union strategies  together formed the basis for the Secretary-General’s Pledging Conference in July 2015, which UNDP organised. The international community has responded generously on Ebola recovery. Around $3 billion in new contributions were pledged at the conference itself, adding to previously committed contributions of $2.3 billion – making up an estimated total amount committed to recovery of $5.3 billion.

Since the July conference, all three countries have been working hard to translate their recovery strategies into operational programmes, with support from the UN System and other partners. The three countries have also been designing appropriate mechanisms for channeling recovery funding, such as National Recovery Trust Funds. I understand that Sierra Leone has already established such a fund. 
 
Early recovery gains are occurring but they do need to be safeguarded and accelerated.

In Guinea, the agriculture sector recorded growth of 5.5 per cent last year. Although economic growth overall was forecasted at only 0.4 per cent last year, growth this year is expected to reach 4.0 per cent.  

In Liberia, the annual growth estimate for last year was recently revised down by the IMF to 0.3 per cent, but growth is projected to pick up this year to 3.9 percent .

In Sierra Leone following a sharp contraction in real GDP in 2015, growth is expected to recover in 2016-17 as the epidemic is contained, investment rises, and consumer confidence strengthens.  

In all three countries, most schools have re-opened.

Looking ahead

The road ahead for recovery is promising – with bold, steadfast, national leadership and with sustained international support and community engagement. 

Overall, the hard lessons learned in the past two years must be fully absorbed so that national and international systems are better prepared to face such crises in the future. Greater resilience must be built into health systems and into government capacities to react quickly.

Meanwhile, all efforts need to be made to support the recovery plans and priorities of the three countries.

•    The Government of Guinea is focusing on socioeconomic recovery, improving social cohesion, accelerating decentralization, and ensuring transparency.  The Food and Agriculture Organization is supporting the government in the agriculture sector, and UNOPS and UNICEF are providing support for the rehabilitation of health infrastructure throughout the country. UNDP is about to begin a program to help Ebola survivors participate fully in the social and economic life of their communities.  UNDP has also supported the establishment and training of some fifty local peace and dialogue committees to assist communities to recover from Ebola.

•    The Government of Liberia is focusing its recovery investments on agriculture, social protection, and education. The Ministry of Agriculture received over $2 million to purchase seed rice, cow peas, and corn to lift agricultural productivity.  The Ministry of Gender and Social Protection was allocated $6.5 million for livelihood recovery for Ebola victims' families. In education, renovation of 259 public schools is planned.

•    The Government of Sierra Leone has set ambitious targets in its recovery strategy, especially in education, health, water and sanitation, energy, social protection, and employment. With support from a range of UN agencies, the Government has begun implementation of a Comprehensive Programme for Ebola Virus Disease Survivors, through which survivors will receive medical and psychosocial care , and access to social protection  and livelihood opportunities. 

As highlighted in the joint strategy document presented by the three countries in July 2015, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States is a relevant framework for collaboration and international partnerships in support of national Ebola recovery strategies. I call on all partners to apply its principles in their recovery partnerships with these countries.

Recovery from Ebola and building resilience to future shocks will require continued strong national leadership of the recovery process, dedicated support from national and international partners, and accelerated disbursement of the financial resources pledged for recovery. If we all commit to play our part, then the three countries can achieve their medium-term recovery objectives and their longer-term development goals.