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The outbreak of Ebola that devastated West Africa is out of the media spotlight, and no doubt many of us have wondered what happened to all those debates over lessons to be learned. A panel discussion at the United Kingdom’s Parliament delved into this issue last week.
The event was organised by the Africa All Party Parliamentary Group to launch a report reviewing evidence submitted in response to an inquiry into the Ebola response last year, which included our Spotlight collection.
The bigger lesson, is about the need to learn from the affected countries themselves.
Calling the report “genuinely useful”, Nick Hurd, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), highlighted two areas of interest for DFID’s activities. One is working with communities — we learned that they must be at the heart of the response, he said, and that anthropology should inform on cultural aspects of disease. Another is strengthening health systems by addressing assumptions, expectations and resource challenges.
While ministers typically only make a five-minute guest appearance at parliamentary events, Hurd’s presence was more committed. “This matters a great deal. It’s personal” he said.
His messages were echoed by members of the panel. DFID’s health advisor Susan Elden said putting better systems and structures in place is a messy and complicated job but it has to be done.
Then the discussion moved closer to the nitty-gritty, resulting in three lingering questions.
The first is about who owns the data governments and aid agencies need in crisis response. Public Health Africa Initiative chair Aliko Ahmed argued that the data should be owned by affected countries in the first place.
It’s a question that will test the nature of collaboration with developing countries.
Hurd said that DFID is focusing on improving reporting systems, while Elden pointed to ongoing discussions with the World Health Organization (WHO) on creating a sharing platform.
The second question is about good value for money. The minister said that government would prioritise putting money towards proven ways of placing community engagement at the heart of future responses.
So measuring the impact of engagement is about to become a whole lot more important. But how will the struggle to prove value and cost-effectiveness compete with other aspects of crisis response?
The answers from the panel were not reassuring. There was some agreement that disaster response is, by its nature, a slow and complicated process. What is important, Hurd said, is to have consensus on cumulative evidence on what’s fundamentally important for an effective response.
The bigger lesson, Elden said, is about the need to learn from the affected countries themselves. But it remains to be seen how well DFID, the WHO and others will listen.