Would you like to smell like Zinedine Zidane? A few years ago, a French perfume maker thought many of us would, and paid the football star to sell its manly mixture. Apparently many of us wouldn’t, and the ads soon disappeared. If you get the right person sending the right message though, stars can be very useful. On Monday, I moderated a panel discussion here at the OECD on “communicating in a crisis”, and one of the panellists described a successful campaign in Côte d’Ivoire using another football hero, Didier Drogba, to convince people to wash their hands and take other elementary precautions to stop the Ebola virus spreading. This worked because Drogba is a local boy and clearly knows and cares about the cause he was promoting. When he was criticised by some media for not going to the national squad’s match, he said he thought fighting Ebola was more important than a football game.
Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t have any Ebola cases, but its neighbours do, so it makes sense to be careful. Does it make sense to announce you’re stopping flights to Nairobi, because of Ebola? Or to cancel filming in Morocco in case Superman and Batman catch the disease? Both of these places are half a continent away from the affected areas, as far as Los Angeles from Guatemala. As one panellist pointed out, it’s as if you closed Paris airports because of fighting in the Ukraine.
The panel discussion was part of the annual meeting of the DevCom network, organised by the OECD Development Centre. The meeting gives the heads of communication of government ministries and others working on development the chance to share their experiences. The discussions covered broad issues such as communicating on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the new set of goals that will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015; and day-to-day questions like how much to spend on social media and should you pay vloggers (yes).
For an outsider like me, the jargon can be an obstacle to understanding, but since these were experts talking to each other, it’s probably not an issue in this kind of meeting. Even so, when one speaker introduced herself as coming from NORAD, I initially thought she was from the North American Aeorospace Defense Command, whose job is to combat intercontinental ballistic missile attacks and track Santa.
The speaker was doing neither, but she did tell us about the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation’s efforts to combat stereotyping. They helped fund a charity single and video featuring singers cooing about the less fortunate. In this case Africans urging their citizens to help cold, miserable Norway. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
The video is hilarious, but it makes a serious point about how a certain perspective dominates the media. Most people here don’t know much about what’s happening in developing countries (or practically any other country either) except for a few sensational stories or something that might affect them directly. The same is true in the developing countries too, but given the mistrust of the authorities and national media, stories reported by foreigners can have a disproportionate impact. When, for example, local officials are saying not to ostracise Ebola victims but the radio reports that in the US a person cured of the disease was forced to stay at home for weeks, or that in Spain they shot the dog of a nurse who was also cured, you have to start trying to convince people all over again.
Some actions cost little or nothing, changing an Ebola-linked programme’s name from “Dead body disposal” to “Safe and dignified burial” for instance, but around the room, everybody agreed that in times of budget cuts, one of the hardest arguments for development communication was convincing the taxpayer that they should be spending money abroad rather than at home. Britain’s Daily Mail ran this headline the other day: “As Somerset faces new floods, we’re set to pay £600m for Third World flood defences… Tory MPs’ fury at new aid giveaway”. And yet, support for development aid does not seem to have been damaged as much as you might expect by the crisis, even though it has declined in some countries. In Ireland for instance, one of the countries hardest hit by the 2007 financial meltdown, a poll in August this year showed that 75% of respondents agree that “people in Ireland have an obligation to invest in overseas aid, even in times of economic recession”; and that 77% of people feel that “it is important for Ireland’s reputation that we keep the promise that 0.7% of national income should be invested in Overseas Aid”, an increase of 4% from 2013 results.
The Irish survey, and similar ones in other countries, also show that most people don’t know how much they’re actually spending on aid. On average, the Irish thought the government was spending 20 times more than it actually does. But even among experts, what you know and what you think is important can vary significantly. One DevCom member told us that some foundations and other philanthropic institutions who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in development projects don’t pay much attention to the SDGs mentioned above.
One of the aims of the DevCom annual meeting was for members to decide on what they want to do over the next year or so and what resources they will provide to do this. I hope they reach a satisfactory agreement, so they can succeed in their main purpose, helping “strengthen public engagement and communication about development”. Especially when you see that among the alternatives are the likes of Sinead O’Connor telling people who don’t agree with her about the Do they know it’s Christmas charity single to “Shut the f*** up”, and presumably do what the pop stars and other loud mouths tell them.
Venture philanthropy in development from netFWD, the OECD-hosted Global Network of Foundations Working for Development.
Information on Ebola from SWAC, the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club
The first clinical tests on an Ebola treatment will be starting in Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without bordes) projects in December. MSF can pay for two beds in their treatment centres for 150 euros.
On 18 September, the UN Security Council, in its first ever emergency meeting on a public health crisis, declared that “the ‘unprecedented extent’ of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constituted a threat to international peace and security”. NGOs have been sounding the alarm for some time. Médecins Sans Frontières’s international President Joanne Liu, said that “six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it.” The World Health Organization warns that things are going to get worse before they get better.
We are talking about a very complex situation in which preventive and curative responses need to be implemented quickly and simultaneously, but where the policies, capacities, resources and political factors that need to be coordinated to stop thousands more people dying or falling seriously ill are mainly absent.
The scale of this crisis and the potential destructiveness are massive. Apart from human suffering, the World Bank has warned that if the virus continues to surge in the three worst-affected countries, Guinea’s economic growth could be reduced by 2 percentage points in 2015, Sierra Leone’s by 8 percentage points and Liberia’s by 11 percentage points. But complex situations where multiple stresses act at the same time are not that uncommon, particularly in countries with a history of conflict and weak institutions. In theory there should be a lot of international experience in dealing with situations of fragility and crisis of different natures.
The issues in the current crisis are resources, capacity and trust.
Let’s start with resources. The UN has asked for $1 billion to combat Ebola. Over $50 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA) is spent each year in the 51 so-called “conflict affected and fragile states” according to the OECD’s 2014 Fragile States Report, 2014). Some low-income fragile states, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, are among the most aid-dependent countries in the world. Maybe the ODA provided was not effective, or not enough, or not allocated to building the capacities needed to face such an epidemic. Both more and different funding is needed.
There is plenty of experience out there is setting up Multi-Partner Trust Funds to respond to particularly challenging situations. Such funds have been established in most recent crisis affected situations, from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to South Sudan. Sometimes they were slow to be set up and did not work well, in others they provided the resources needed by key actors in country to focus on their priorities. This option could, perhaps be considered for the region.
There is also a need to tap into private money and expertise, and encourage the private sector to follow the example of the Gates Foundation, that has pledged $50 million to the fight against Ebola. In some contexts, private sector operators provided basic services to the population, given the lack of state capacities or willingness (e.g. Somalia). The policy response can rest with the specialised agencies and the government of the concerned countries, but can private sector actors be brought in with funds and expertise, not only to research a vaccine, but also to help manage the response on the ground?
On the capacity issue, not only doctors and nurses who are needed, but also people who can boost the government and local civil society organisations’ capacities to manage the crisis, but also keep everything else going. A sort of a “capacity surge” to prevent weak institutions collapsing and the gains achieved in other sectors to disappear as the Ebola epidemic takes centre stage and sucks up all the resources and capacities. Maybe this could be done quickly with the help of the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the UN?
What about the governments and people in West Africa themselves? The current response, focused on the emergency health response and fundraising, has to factor in the need for a much-missing commodity: trust. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are grappling with a history of violence, mistrust of government and of others, and extreme poverty. Although things were looking up before the disease struck, these factors go a long way to explaining why the perfectly reasonable health and security messages being spread are being actively being ignored by the population. To the outside world it is baffling that they would ignore calls to check in for treatment; throw stones at doctors and burial boys; destroy treatment centres. The World Bank emphasises the urgency of combating “aversion behaviour” – a fear factor resulting from peoples’ concerns about contagion, which is fuelling the economic impact. But these countries’ history has also produced fear and mistrust of the government and authorities.
In Liberia, the West Point slum in Monrovia (also the opposition’s stronghold) was reportedly quarantined without prior consultation. It led to widespread rioting. The slum’s 50,000 to 120,000 dwellers had to suddenly pay more for increasingly scarce water, food and basic necessities. The effectiveness of the quarantine is disputable given that it took only four dollars to bribe one’s way out. Working with Paramount Chiefs, women’s associations and imams, as in some districts of Sierra Leone, is time consuming, but it is the only way populations can understand, buy into and participate in the fight against Ebola.
The risk of compounding the health crisis with a humanitarian crisis by quarantining the whole region is real. Shutting off the region entirely will be like replicating the West Point experience on a grander and more dramatic scale. It will cause rioting and will not be effective. Just as people escaped from West Point, people can escape from larger quarantine zones.
How can the international community respond effectively, now?
Don’t ignore the big political and social elephants in the room. The WHO roadmap and the Word Bank’s plans will only change behaviours if issues of trust and mistrust are factored in.
Help the region’s new generation of leaders identify priorities. These leaders should be engaging with and communicating with their citizens. No one can do it in their place.
Transparency and accountability are not a luxury. They are needed to build trust and get people on board. There are many promising big data initiatives in this area, a must given the lack of data or reliable statistical systems. What is missing is an aggregation of this emerging data and access to it.
In short the fight against Ebola can only be won with the people concerned – not without or, even worse, against them.