NEW YORK – The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is destroying lives, decimating communities, and orphaning children at a rate not seen since the region’s brutal civil wars ended more than a decade ago. In Liberia, 60% of markets are now closed; in Sierra Leone, only one-fifth of the 10,000 HIV patients who are on anti-retroviral treatments are still receiving them; and Guinea’s government is reporting a $220 million financing gap because of the crisis. If the outbreak is not contained soon, most of the economic and social gains achieved since peace was restored in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and since Guinea’s democratic transition began, could be reversed.
All three countries remain fragile, divided, and, as the current crisis highlights, uniquely prone to shocks. More broadly, the region’s current crisis should inspire reflection about how the world supports and advances development.
One important reason for these countries’ vulnerability is the consistent lack of investment in their populations, which has prevented ordinary citizens from reaping the benefits of economic growth. Indeed, while the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone grew rapidly in the ten years prior to the Ebola outbreak – at average annual rates of 2.8%, 10%, and 8%, respectively – their populations have seen little improvement in their daily lives. More than 65% of foreign direct investment has gone toward mining and logging, which are notorious for generating little employment and concentrating wealth in the hands of a few.
Likewise, though health services in Liberia and Sierra Leone improved after their civil wars ended, quality and coverage have remained well below West African standards. When Ebola struck, Liberia had only 120 doctors for its four million citizens. Add to that sprawling urban slums – semi-governed, overcrowded, and poorly sanitized – and it is not surprising that these countries have struggled to contain the epidemic.