Global Health Working Group Promotes Ebola Open Letter

Last week a Workshop was held at the Centre for Global Health Policy at the University of Sussex which brought together a number of scholars, primarily UK-based International Relations scholars, to discuss the current Ebola crisis and the international response to it.

From this workshop arose an open letter on what the field of International Relations offers in terms of learning the lessons from the Ebola response:

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has brought to light some important issues and tensions in global health, ranging from the institutions that have been created to service the international community – such as the World Health Organization (WHO) – to the role of governments, politics and ideas in determining how, where and what health issues are addressed. Failings in the management of and response to the Ebola outbreak have sparked a debate about the efficacy of the system of global health governance. This is a necessary debate for the global health community to engage in. When the time comes, we believe that analysts of global health politics and international relations have several valuable insights to help ‘learn the lessons’ from the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

First, on institutional reform: The Ebola outbreak has been an exceptional event. It should not be assumed that lessons drawn from this single event can provide a template for redesigning the everyday workings and agenda of an institution such as the WHO. The WHO has certainly made mistakes in the Ebola response, and these need to be recognized and addressed. However, the efficacy of its Ebola response is not the only metric by which this institution should be judged, nor should Ebola be used politically as an opportunity to further undermine the WHO.

Second, on institutional innovation: We have observed recent calls for the creation of a new international ‘rapid response’ agency for health emergencies. Clearly in some cases rapid response is of the utmost importance, and enhanced rapid response coordination and capacity is needed. However, emphasising rapid response to the detriment of other solutions is problematic, inasmuch as the former is by its very nature ill-suited to building long-term solutions to deep-seated problems. The international community must also be careful that creatingsuch a body may be counterproductive, by shifting attention away from the important task of strengthening in-country health systems which are best-placed to be first line responders to health emergencies.

Third, on the relationship between global health governance and national health systems: Any investigation into institutional failings in the response to Ebola in 2014 must be cognizant of the wider system of global health governance that has dominated questions of African health reform since 2000. A knee-jerk “blame game” of “who did not do what when they should” will only provide a veneer of accountability. Instead, we need a systematic unravelling of why health systems were so poorly developed in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Here, reflecting on the impact of the goal-oriented mentality underpinning the Millennium Development Goals agenda cannot be avoided. We must also consider the roles of the actors (state and non-state) that have supposedly been responsible for supporting these health systems, and what they could have done better. The results of such analyses could go some way to providing the basis for thinking about how to build a more sustainable model of global health governance.

Fourth, on the centrality of politics to all institutions: Attempting to separate politics from the technical workings of institutions is a useless exercise – and a potentially dangerous one. All global health institutions are engaged in the management of resources, expectations and the interests of a myriad of state and non-state actors. They have to engage in political brokering, negotiation, leadership and policy design and implementation. The idea that international institutions can or should be “apolitical” has only contributed to limiting their agency, whilst obscuring the real politicking that occurs within and between these institutions. ‘Politics’ is not the problem, and it must be part of the solution.

Fifth, on power and inequalities: Contrary to a much-repeated refrain, disease does know borders. These borders may be those that separate nation-states from one another, but they can also be cultural, racial, economic, or gendered. Access to information and adequate healthcare, as well as exposure to health risk, are not equally shared but rather are dependent on a multitude of local, national and international divisions – not least inequalities in power and wealth. These need to be acknowledged, understood and deconstructed if we are to finally make good on the promise of delivering ‘health for all’.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa – the latest in a depressing series of outbreaks in this region in recent decades – has highlighted the extent to which global health policy has become reactive rather than proactive. A failure to take bold political action in addressing the concerns we have highlighted in this letter will mean that the global health community will remain ill-equipped to respond to future outbreaks, still less to prevent them occurring.

Should you or any of your colleagues wish to sign this open letter please email Sophie Harman (s.harman@qmul.ac.uk) by Midday UK time on Monday 8th December with: ‘Please add my name to the open letter, *name and *institution’.

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