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Ebola: Leeds Responds


Blog post by Hannah Leach

Ebola Conference: MSF, Development & Global Health, March 2015

In the wake of the recent Ebola epidemic, an interdisciplinary group of students, academics and development professionals came together at the University of Leeds to promote debate and tackle questions of stigmatisation, at almost a year on since the first official case was diagnosed. The campaign, entitled “Ebola: Leeds Responds”, encompassed fund and awareness-raising events with groups including West African drum collective, Drumroots, with all proceeds supporting Africare, an NGO from the Africa Responds portfolio, a West African diaspora platform promoting a nuanced approach to grassroots development (See for more information). All this was centred around an academic conference confronting the how, the why, and the WHO of the outbreak, and implications carried by the aftermath, not only for West African communities, but for the global development sphere as a whole.

CGD was among a long list of collaborators and sponsors who generously supported and contributed to ensuring the success of the campaign, including RiDNet, LUCAS, Leeds student MEDSIN society, the ONE society, the student branch of the Practical Initiatives Network (PIN) and MSF. The conference was modelled on the basis that it would provide an extensive overview of the multitude of factors that contributed to prolonging the crisis, aiming to examine the outbreak from all possible angles. I’ll attempt to sum up each of these here in a bite-size format, although it must be said, one measly blog post will only give a flavour of the complex nature of this much-debated chapter of Global Development.

“Ebola is a political crisis, not a medical one”

The event kicked off with Dr. Alex Beresford and Dr. Emma-Louise Anderson of the School of Politics and International Studies, with a closer look at the socio-political components that impacted the development of the outbreak. If we are to assume that Ebola was indeed “a political crisis, not a medical one”, as Beresford claims, then the region’s turbulent history must be taken into account when looking back. Just one example is the foreign pilfering of West Africa’s mineral wealth that has played a leading role in the decimation of Sierra Leone through years of civil war, in the post-colonial era. However, herein lies the hypocrisy in the reality that colonialism lives on in modern day under the guise of Neoliberal economic policies, and that we must consider the “transnational dimensions” of the epidemic, particularly now that the “Africa Rising” paradigm may be under threat (a concept fabricated by neoliberals as a success story to ease colonial guilt?).

In reality, what Beresford proposed is that the catastrophic handling of the crisis is founded in “Africa’s uneven inclusion, not marginalisation” in the global system and that the continued fortification of this through antiquated notions of helpless Africans at the mercy of western aid missionaries forms the basis for further debacles to take place on such a scale.

“The terminal decline of the Health sector”

Anderson brought in another viewpoint in the form of securitization of health and social exclusion. The presentation sought to outline the complex nature of the health sector in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea through a system rife with Patrimonialism, leading to a decentralisation of the sector and resulting in multiple parallel health systems. (See Booth and Kelsall’s research on Developmental patrimonialism? Questioning the orthodoxy on political governance and economic progress in Africa

Anderson described the situation in the region as the “terminal decline of the health sector”, where Ebola could be used as political leverage for presidential candidates and an “acute dependency” on foreign aid from bodies such as DFID, which removes agency from local institutions, as the money is siphoned off through corrupt governments into private hands. Ultimately, all of this boils down to an oversimplification of development as a wealth-based issue, forgoing the complexity of social infrastructure and systems such as these, both produced internally and as a result of external relationships past and present.

“The right to Health: no mechanism for implementation”

The first half of the conference rounded off with Dr. Reinhard Huss of the School of Healthcare, and a glance at the role of the World Health Organisation in responding to the crisis. According to Huss, there is currently no mechanism for ensuring the Right to Health for citizens of the developing world. This truth, combined with the politicisation of multilateral institutions such as the WHO, served to dictate the speed and magnitude of international response to the spread of the epidemic.

One of the key conclusions to emerge from the crisis is that such agencies are only in place not to ensure the protection of the countries in the heart of the epidemic, but in fact to safeguard high-income countries against the spread of the disease past their borders, a reality which many find hard to swallow. Not to mention the fact that expenditure is ultimately dictated according to voluntary foreign donors to the WHO that in the past have not prioritised disease over other concerns (the Gates Foundation representing one of the most significant benefactors, above that of the UK and even the USA, according to Huss).

Doctors Without Borders

Andy Dennis, an MSF nurse recently returned from Sierra Leone where he was stationed in October ’14, closed the event with a personal account of his experiences on the ground. We were exposed to the realities of the daily routine of a Health Worker, alongside an explanation of the relationship between foreign and local NGOs, and the roles and responsibilities of each. Dennis emphasised the sacrifice and dedication of local communities towards treating and preventing the spread of the disease, a factor often overlooked when praising organisations such as MSF.

All in all, the conference served to cover a host of different aspects that cannot be overlooked when trying to unravel the reasoning behind the response to the Ebola outbreak, and hopefully these will constitute some lessons learned for future challenges on a global scale.

The Ebola: Leeds Responds campaign raised over £500 in total for Africare Ebola recovery operations. You can check out their projects & donate personally to their efforts in Liberia and Guinea through their website at or contact Africa Responds to contribute to another of their individually assessed portfolio.

This post was written by Hannah Leach, President of the PIN (Practical Initiatives Network) Students society at the University of Leeds. You can contact her at @EHLLEACH