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UN Ebola Intervention: A New Beginning for International Emergency Response

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By Dmitry Borisov: 

On December 19th, on his first tour of the Ebola-hit West African countries, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the ongoing U.N. mission to counter the spread of Ebola should be a short-term one. Earlier, on December 1st, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Liberia and Guinea — two out of three Ebola-stricken countries — met their targets for safe burials of Ebola victims. Two weeks prior, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Guinea had finally stabilized, leaving only Sierra Leone in the grip of the disease. Some observers have taken the success in Liberia and Guinea to mean that the international response to the epidemic is beginning to have impact. Some see the centerpiece of this response as the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), an emergency health mission created to tackle the crisis. Unprecedented and operating in a staggeringly complex environment, UNMEER’s efforts in West Africa underscore the institutional ingenuity, relevance, and adaptability of the U.N. to evolving challenges of global security.

Established in late September — the darkest days of the crisis — by a unanimous vote at the U.N. General Assembly, UNMEER was mandated to lead and coordinate the international Ebola response at the operational level and implement the strategy devised by the Office of the Special Envoy on Ebola, the WHO, and the U.N. Secretary-General. One of the main reasons that the international response came so late was the lack of a cohesive response strategy and a coordination mechanism between the numerous actors and stakeholders. UNMEER provides such a mechanism and constitutes an unprecedented response for the U.N. — the first mission deployed specifically to tackle a health security challenge.

Based in Accra, Ghana, UNMEER comprises 283 personnel and coordinates with partners on the ground through its three country offices in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The offices collaborate with U.N. country teams, humanitarian NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), national Ebola operation centers, U.S. Africa Command, and UNMIL, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Having deployed some 130 civilian medical and 350 military personnel, U.S. AFRICOM provides engineering support, transportation to remote locations, trains health care workers, and supports the movement of key political figures. MSF, one of the largest humanitarian NGOs, employs some 300 international and 3,000 locally hired staff, operates Ebola case management centers and provides direct medical care to patients.

UNMEER itself is tasked with locating and monitoring everyone who comes in direct contact with a sick Ebola patient, overseeing safe burials, and local capacity-building to enable care for persons with Ebola. It establishes treatment centers and equips them, creates air bridges, transports supplies and medical personnel, protects health workers, negotiates with national governments, and reports to donors in New York. A major focus of UNMEER’s work is ensuring access to food, which suffered due to falling food production, rising food prices, closed borders, restricted regional trade, and the displacement of people from farmlands.

Given the size of the U.N. bureaucracy, UNMEER might be expected to be slow-moving and cumbersome, but so far it has proven highly agile. Before UNMEER’s intervention Liberia and Guinea reported 20 new Ebola cases every day, and the disease threatened to spill over to Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Now, the outbreak is contained to three countries, and in large parts of Liberia and Guinea the number of cases has stabilized. While direct causality is hard to establish because of the volatility of the situation, this success may be due in part to the fact that UNMEER created a collaboration platform for all the major international and country-level stakeholders, followed stringent medical regulations for health workers, as well as effectively coordinated between medical actors, security forces, and logistics services.

This rapid coordinated response is particularly impressive given the complexity of the Ebola crisis. The epidemic has not just challenged the health systems of the affected countries but put entire societies on the brink of political and economic collapse.

The crisis dealt a heavy blow to the struggling regional economy right when the countries were trying to establish a new narrative of growth and economic recovery. Flights into Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were suspended, trade diminished, the labor market suffered as expatriate workers fled the country, and people were unable or too scared to go to work. Liberia’s mining sector — the engine of its economy — took a significant toll with sector growth estimates dropping from 6 percent to 2.5 percent. According to Axel Addy, Commerce and Industry Minister of Liberia, “GDP is likely to go into the negative, because speaking of the mining sector, a lot of our major operators in that sector have had to slow down operations, many of the technical staff have left the country, and that directly has an impact.” Guinea and Sierra Leone are facing similar challenges, and the World Bank envisions a whopping $32.6bn economic loss for the region.

The political and security situation is no less difficult. The epidemic exposed the accumulated frustration of the people with their governments, the lack of trust and a high potential for unrest in these fragile post-conflict societies. Fuelled by food shortages and poor government management of the crisis, some places — such as forest areas in southeast Guinea — have already seen old tensions resurface. At the same time, the risks of social unrest and political upheaval are high not only in Guinea, where in 2013 two hundred people died in ethnic clashes, but across the whole region.

The Ebola crisis poses a new kind of global security threat. As Liberia’s Foreign Affairs Minister put it, “As destructive as the Liberian Civil War was, at least our people knew the warring factions and the frontlines. With Ebola, the enemy is more insidious and there are no clear-cut frontlines because someone’s child, someone’s husband, someone’s workmate could actually be the enemy and the frontline at the same time.” UNMEER entered these complex socio-economic environments when the epidemic was already raging and Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were teetering on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. And yet, only two and a half months later, the situation is slowly improving.

Once the crisis is over, UNMEER will be dissolved, but its lessons should not be forgotten. It has played an important role in coordinating the activities of a multitude of national and international actors and stakeholders. UNMEER’s model could be developed and replicated in the future to deal with a broad range of non-traditional security threats.    

Photo credit: UNMEER via flickr

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