Colonial Lines Drawn Again for Ebola Aid

When Ebola first hit rural Guinea last April, panicked villagers spread conspiracy theories that the virus was nothing more than a neocolonial ploy to weaken already marginalized ethnic groups. That kind of denial and paranoid thinking is common in most major epidemics, but a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report released ...

Dominique Faget/AFP
Dominique Faget/AFP

When Ebola first hit rural Guinea last April, panicked villagers spread conspiracy theories that the virus was nothing more than a neocolonial ploy to weaken already marginalized ethnic groups.

That kind of denial and paranoid thinking is common in most major epidemics, but a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report released Monday sheds light on a different kind of neocolonialism taking form in the region’s Ebola crisis: Rather than coordinating an effort to combat the massive outbreak, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are instead sending disproportionate amounts of aid to the territories they once controlled.

This lack of coordination among the three largest donors to the fight against Ebola ignores the reality of borders between Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where political lines are more a trace of colonialism than an accurate representation of modern-day relationships between the border communities of the three developing nations.

Trade routes running through those border towns helped the virus spread quickly through the three countries, and the divided response from the United States, the U.K., and France only complicated the possibility of containing the outbreak.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said at the U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday that the continued escalation of the virus could turn into a "potentially catastrophic blow" to these countries’ already weak economies.

Disproportionate allocation of resources threatens the possibility of controlling the disease’s spread and could lead to greater divides between African countries’ ruling elites and untrusting factions in their populations. Recent attacks on health workers and journalists in all three countries are indicative of this distrust, which is only exacerbated by an equal distrust of former colonial powers.

Financial responses to the epidemic have mainly been negotiated privately through institutional aid relationships between the United States and Liberia, the U.K. and Sierra Leone, and France and Guinea. Other negotiations have gone through the U.N., which still requires aid to go directly from governments or their agencies to other governments and their agencies, which excludes existing NGOs and other aid organizations from receiving funding to combat the virus on the ground.

On Sept. 13, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf even made a public plea to President Barack Obama for American support, saying, "Only governments like yours have the resources and assets to deploy at the pace required to arrest the spread."

And it worked.

In Liberia, a nation founded by former American slaves, the largest donor has been the American government, which just last week announced it would deploy 3,000 American troops to the country to help stop the spread of the disease. The Pentagon also announced it will send engineers to build 17 new treatment facilities, each with 100 beds, and train up to 500 medical personnel to staff them. Those operations alone could top $750 million dollars, the Obama administration said, in addition to the $17 million the United States has already sent to Liberia as a response to the outbreak.

The United States also contributed an additional $56 million to be divided among the three most heavily affected countries, plus some funding for preventative measures in Nigeria, but no single country has received even close to as much funding from the United States as Liberia.

In fact, the only other country to receive direct funding at all is Sierra Leone, which received $3.5 million in a grant through USAID — small potatoes in comparison to the aid Liberia has raked in over the past five months.

That’s because Sierra Leone has its own Western bank account: Great Britain. Founded by black loyalists and former British slaves from the Caribbean, Sierra Leone has long depended on the U.K. for foreign aid. Since the virus first hit Sierra Leone in late April, the U.K. has sent the country’s government more than $12 million, in addition to medical staff and a more recent pledge to build a 68-bed hospital there. Despite a larger Ebola breakout in Liberia, the U.K. sent its government only less than $1 million — a fraction of what they contributed to Sierra Leone.

And last week, French President François Hollande renewed France’s commitment to addressing the outbreak in Guinea, a former French colony, when he announced the upcoming opening of a military hospital there. Thus far, more than $12 million has been sent to Guinea alone, as well as an additional $15.5 million for preventative aid to Senegal and the Ivory Coast, two other former French colonies.

Aid from the French government is harder to track because it goes through a joint account with the European Commission. But even the E.C. has given more to Guinea than to any other Ebola-stricken country. In 2014, the executive body of the European Union sent $13 million to help combat Ebola regionally, but an additional $2.6 million was sent specifically to Guinea, the only country to receive a direct donation.

Guinea has also benefited from donations from other francophone countries, including Canada and Luxembourg. While Canada donated $63,000 to Liberia and $50,000 to Sierra Leone, Guinea received $633,000 from them in emergency response support.

Luxembourg’s donation of just over $269,000 to Guinea seems insignificant in comparison to other Western countries, but according to the UNOCHA report, it’s the only donation the tiny nation has made to fight Ebola at all.

China, a longtime friend to Sierra Leone, has already sent $1.6 million this year. Last week, Cuba sent Sierra Leone 165 medical professionals and China sent two airplanes worth of Chinese medical staff and equipment to open a CDC laboratory and treatment center there.

If all of these Western nations had conferred before making political decisions as to where to send their aid, there would have been a better chance of containing the virus early on.

But Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist at Foreign Policy, said what’s happened instead is a dangerous neocolonial organization of aid — and going down that path could get donors into sticky situations if the virus can’t be controlled.

"We’re really taking on the Liberia crisis as our own and there could be blowback from that if things go really south," she said. "If we have really seriously difficult times either the epidemic continues to expand long after we continue this increase of personnel, or American personnel are put under physical attack, we’re taking responsibility … for Liberia, and that’s going to include what people will think if we’re not successful in putting it under control in a timely fashion."

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