The most recent Ebola epidemic began in December 2013 in Guinea and has since spread to other countries in West Africa, most notably Liberia and Sierra Leone. As of October 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded approximately 10,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths. The affected countries struggle with high rates of poverty and low education levels. Many of their citizens do not understand the disease and are suspicious of government authorities and medical staff. In addition, they cannot afford the supplies and medical care that would help protect them against infection. As a result, these countries are experiencing severe challenges in containing the outbreak.
Many large international NGOs and foreign governments have pledged support to help contain the outbreak. These foreign actors must contend with the challenges of working with an often suspicious and fearful population. However, there are diaspora groups from both Liberia and Sierra Leone who possess a thorough understanding of the local context and are posing innovative initiatives to help citizens protect themselves. The Mineke Foundation and Lunchbox are two new programs spearheaded by diaspora groups.
Tonia Dabwe, the Liberian-Dutch founder of the Mineke Foundation, won the International African Woman of the Year Award in 2013, in recognition of her work in Liberia. Since August 2014, the organization has focused on Ebola prevention and awareness activities in the country. Working in several communities near the capital of Monrovia, they have been making door-to-door visits to talk to residents about Ebola. They also distribute flyers containing information about Ebola prevention and hold movie nights showing an educational film about the disease.
The Mineke Foundation says that residents regularly tell them they are the first NGO to actively work at the grassroots level to educate and inform local community members. Residents also say that other larger NGOs provide support, but have not taken as much time to talk personally with residents and address their questions and concerns. The result of this work is that several hundred people have been taught about Ebola prevention, and some have begun volunteering with the Mineke Foundation to help educate others. Their current goal is to reach 20,000 people with their campaign to dispel fears and suspicions that foreign medical teams are causing or spreading Ebola, and teach proper prevention techniques.
In September 2014, Memuna Janneh, a Sierra Leonean living part-time in the UK, learned that the government of Sierra Leone had announced a three-day lockdown in the country. She knew that many people earn money for food on a daily basis, and without the ability to go out every day and raise money for their next meal, they risked going hungry for those three days. She decided to organize a program to cook and distribute meals to affected people. During the lockdown, her organization managed to feed 2,600 people in seven communities.
Janneh stresses that they serve Sierra Leonean food that is familiar and appropriate to local expectations. Lunchbox currently has a goal to serve 50,000 meals in the next three months to communities affected by the disease, including front-line staff and patients in hospitals. The tradition in Sierra Leone is that when a family member is in the hospital, families take food to their loved ones. However, if someone is quarantined for Ebola, their family is unable to visit and provide for them. This is where Lunchbox can step in and provide valuable support.
Why are innovative diaspora efforts needed?
In a major humanitarian emergency such as the current Ebola outbreak, the greatest response typically comes from international actors who have the financial means and technical skills to mount a large-scale initiative. However, local stakeholders, who usually become first responders, are often left out of activities and there is little input from the very people who are affected. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, local populations may not have the requisite medical knowledge, but they do possess an intimate knowledge of the local culture and context of the outbreak. Unfortunately, this valuable asset is often overlooked and opportunities for NGOs and local populations to collaborate are missed.
Work carried out by West African diaspora groups is innovative because it represents an opportunity for local residents to be heard and to provide input on how to most appropriately mount a response. Members of the diaspora have maintained close links to communities in their home countries and may be more able and more willing to work in partnership with them. The diaspora response is a means to engage more fully with communities and give them more leadership in their fight against Ebola.