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The AU's Ebola mission: it's not all about the money
22 September 2014

More than six months have passed since the Ebola epidemic was officially declared in Guinea. In this time, very little help has come from African institutions, individuals and non-governmental organisations. Finally, African businessmen and the African Union (AU) are now joining the international effort to help the thousands of victims of the dreaded virus.

Last week, a team of 30 health workers from Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria left Addis Ababa for Liberia to assist the country at the epicentre of the epidemic. They are the first batch of AU volunteers led by Julius Oketta, a former major general from Uganda.

According to an AU statement, Oketta had led the Ugandan effort against Ebola in the past. He is currently the director of Uganda’s National Emergency Coordination and Operations Centre in the office of the prime minister. Another group of volunteers – which will, like the first group, include medical doctors, nurses and other medical and paramedical personnel – will also soon be leaving for Sierra Leone, says the AU.

Clearly this is not enough. The epidemic is reaching catastrophic proportions

The AU effort has been dubbed the African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA). It is funded largely by the Unites States (US), which pledged US$10million for the effort; the European Union (EU), which pledged US$5million; and China (which pledged US$2million).

Last month, Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote pledged almost US$1 million dollars for preparations should the virus get out of hand in his country. Fellow Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu also donated over US$600 000 to be split between Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Clearly this is not enough. The epidemic is reaching catastrophic proportions and the World Health Organisation (WHO) says the US$600 million initially requested – and subsequently raised – will not be enough to help the countries to cope. Over 2 500 people have died so far, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The support from the international community outside of Africa has also been slow, and the WHO itself has come under severe criticism over its tardy reaction and failure to manage the outbreak. The United Nations (UN) met for the first time on the crisis last week, and advance teams from its Mission for Ebola Emergency Response are said to be arriving in the region today, 22 September.

The recent announcement by US president Barack Obama that he is sending 3 000 troops to build emergency health centres in Liberia is probably the most practical move to help that we've seen so far. Meanwhile philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged over US$60 million for the fight against Ebola, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has also donated US$9 million. The World Bank is the biggest contributor to the effort against Ebola, having provided funding of US$200 million.

Against these figures, the AU effort is a drop in the ocean. Yet that doesn't mean its contribution is insignificant. This is, in fact, the first time the AU has invoked Article 6 of its charter to assist in humanitarian issues, and the problems encountered are therefore understandable.

The AU has in recent years deployed military missions across the continent, including to Somalia, Darfur, the Central African Republic and Mali. Some missions have been more successful than others, but, one should hope, lessons are being learnt and improvements made after each deployment.

The AU is using its expertise for the first time to assist in a humanitarian crisis

Now, with the backing of the 15-member Peace and Security Council and coordinated by the Social Affairs Commissioner, Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, the AU is using its expertise for the first time to assist in a humanitarian crisis.

The role of the AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a doctor by profession and formerly the South African minister of health, is certainly to be noted.

At the launch of the Ebola initiative during an emergency meeting of the AU Executive Council on 8 September, Dlamini-Zuma said the aim of the operation is to ‘show our solidarity, and to develop a collective, comprehensive, and coordinated strategy, so that our sisters and brothers, and the leadership of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other affected countries know that they are part of a broader, caring African and global family.’ Up to now, this global family has left the people of these West African states in the lurch.

Dlamini-Zuma also called on African media, civil society, artists and cultural workers, political parties, sports and faith-based organisations ‘to get accurate and clear messages out, to inform and educate, without sensationalising [the crisis] and causing panic.’

The recent attack on health workers and journalists in Guinea, in which eight people were killed, is an example of the lack of information around the relief effort. At the sight of foreigners dressed in space-age garb coming to their villages to spray disinfectant and take away the sick, some locals have taken fright. As a result, all sorts of rumours are circulating.

Dlamini-Zuma also said: ‘We should ensure that Ebola does not spread to other countries, by implementing effective procedures to detect, isolate and treat those who may be infected and protect the rest of the population from infections. At the same time, we must be careful not to introduce measures that place more averse social and economic impacts than the disease itself.’

The stereotyping of citizens of these countries is a huge problem and has an impact on all African countries. One of the long-term consequences of the Ebola outbreak may well be that Africa again has to rebuild its image and break down pre-conceived notions of a disease-ridden continent unable to cope with crises.

The AU effort has received very little media coverage. Considering the small amount of money and resources pledged for the effort, it is perhaps understandable. The contribution, however, is not to be measured simply in dollars and cents. It is also an opportunity to show leadership in coordinating continental and regional efforts and giving guidelines as to how the outbreak should be handled.

For example, the AU had earlier called on all member states not to block travellers from the countries affected by Ebola, but rather to adopt measures like installing checks at airports, and having emergency plans ready should the disease be detected in their countries. This call hasn't been universally accepted, with countries like Botswana bluntly stating that it puts 'national interest first'.

The AU and regional economic communities can also play a role in coordinating relief and prevention efforts. The Southern African Development Community, for example, has held several meetings to discuss emergency measures should the outbreak affect the region.

Unfortunately, the timing of the AU response means it’s too late to guide the deployment of global efforts on the ground. Hopefully next time the need arises, it will be the first to react to find ‘African solutions for African problems'.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

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