Payment of Ebola Response Workers - a moral imperative and a practical collaboration
13 Mar 2015 by Jago Salmon, Manager, Development Solutions Team, Payment Programme for Ebola Response Workers
Ebola Response Workers (ERWs), mostly nationals of the epicenter countries Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, have been the cornerstone upon which the response has rested. As the Time Person of the Year Award 2014 recognized, these workers have been at the frontlines: transporting the sick, caring for patients, tracing and monitoring the exposed, attending to the deceased, and providing security and coordination at all levels.
A number of ERWs were already public employees (health sector workers, hospital staff, or district medical officers) at the outbreak of the crisis. But at the height of the crisis, as causalities mounted, many more were hired to work as part of the emergency response, supporting contact tracing, safe burials and community mobilization amongst other functions. Regardless of their status, these workers took on their responsibilities expecting at best modest compensation.
By October 2014, when medical evidence indicated the risk of an exponential expansion of infections, many workers had, however, gone without pay for months. Whilst resources were available, reliable payment platforms able to manage large scale coordinated payments to individuals were not. Government payroll only covered existing civil servants, banking sector penetration was weak, and mobile payments had only been used for small scale pilots – even identification of workers was a challenge in countries without national ID card schemes. At the same time, miscommunication and differences in pay scales between government and NGO schemes were triggering threats of strikes and labour disputes across the three ebola-epicentre countries. It was clear that without adequate compensation and pay, these workers could not work, and without their work, the response would not be successful.
At the Operational Conference for scaling up the UN system approach to the Ebola response (held in Accra from 15 through 18 October) UNDP made a pledge to all partners, that it would guarantee that all Ebola Response Workers (ERWs) would be paid fully and on time by 1st December.
With the World Bank and other partners covering recurrent costs, UNDP observed that the critical bottleneck lay in the last stage of delivery of payments to the workers. Building on its experience assisting countries in restoring core government functions in the aftermath of crisis, UNDP set about reinforcing existing payment systems – building on national capacities in payroll and the commercial banking sector to balance between averting strikes and ensuring fiduciary compliance.
Within three weeks of its commitment, UNDP had set up the Payment of Ebola Workers Programme - investing seed resources to establish information management systems in all three countries, improve communications (eg. www.ebolapayments.org) and reinforce payment systems. UNDP surged staff and technical advisors to the affected countries, and establishing a regional technical unit staffed by the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). Where no other options were feasible, UNDP stepped in as last resort to make payments.
This was an enormous task – in Sierra Leone alone by December 2014, UNDP was working with 14 District Medical Officers, 14 District Coordinators for Ebola Response, and over 1000 Medical Facilities across the country with Ebola Workers moving across districts/centers.
UNDP’s commitment to ensure all payment by 1 December 2014 was achieved despite technical and financial gaps caused by the registration of workers under different payment systems. Within one month, an estimated 70% of ERWs were registered on the information management system.
Today, across the three countries, 95-100% of registered Ebola workers (approximately 38,000 people) are linked to payment mechanisms and in most payment cycles, more than 90% of registered Ebola workers are being paid on time. UNDP has supported the harmonization of pay scales, established complaint handling mechanisms and moved to electronic and mobile delivery of money, ensuring that the Ebola Workers have access to and control over their Hazard Pay. This has been in large part thanks to the tireless efforts of national coordinators and ministry staff from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, who have worked all hours and made every effort to comply with regulations, ensuring lists were correct, visiting each county or district, and answering any questions.
Through a practical collaboration between national efforts and international expertise and resources, we have met a moral responsibility towards the Ebola Response Workers, and by doing so have helped advance the global fight against the epidemic.