Photo: Corporal Paul Shaw/MOD

The impact of the Ebola outbreak on West Africa has been devastating for families, communities and public health systems already under severe strain.    At the same time, the economic impact on the three main countries Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has been crippling, with the World Bank estimating that they will suffer a combined $1.6 billion in economic losses in 2015 due to the ongoing outbreak. Unemployment rates are also expected to remain high, with cross-border traders, private-sector wage earners and the self-employed among the worst hit.  Liberia’s growth forecast for 2015 has been cut in half and projected growth in Sierra Leone and Guinea for 2015 has shrunk to below zero. These countries all had healthy growth rates predicted for 2015 before the epidemic.

Whilst the focus of the response to ebola has inevitably been on putting in place the necessary resources for agencies and medical staff to treat and support those directly affected, the important role business can play is increasinly apparent.  From ensuring investment and financing continues to flow, to making available product and service innovations that overcome logistical challenges and reaching  employees, suppliers and customers with advice on how to stay safe, business can play an important supporting role.

This online discussion will explore how the private sector can best contribute in the wake of a major public health emergency and identify lessons learned for the future.

Key questions for the discussion are:

  • How can business best contribute to tackling public health crisis’ like ebola?
  • What have we learned from the on-going ebola outbreak about how to successfully mobilise a business response, and where are the business innovations happening?
  • How can public-private collaboration enhance the impact of business’s contribution?

 

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Oxfam’s experience is that financial support, is usually the most effective way to deploy resources.

(a) understand stakeholders

(b) what are our strengths, how can we help

(c) action plan

(d) measure our impact – is what we doing relevant and delivering value

 

Happy to elaborate on each ...

 

Supporting our staff – Primarily focused on health and hygiene, provision of equipment, support and benefits, medical coverage, and evacuation (if required). 

Clients / customers - Continuing to operate business as usual as far as possible to support businesses and customers.  

Working with corporates - As a member of the Sierra Leone Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group (EPSMG), we are working to optimise Ebola support with local MNCs operating in Sierra Leone.  We have signed the UN’s Business Action Pledge on Ebola Elimination alongside other members of the EPSMG and are working with Financial Institutions in and outside the region. 

Other stakeholders – We support the #AfricaAgainstEbola campaign (a charity initiated by the African Union, African Development Bank and African corporates) by providing core banking services to a global fundraising campaign. 

Hi everyone -- this is Penny Anderson, Mercy Corps Country Director in Liberia. Glad to be part of this discussion.

How can business best contribute to overcoming health crises like Ebola? By staying in business! During the height of the crisis here in Liberia, we saw a fair amount of investor aversion. Big businesses and small closed up shop. While this was understandable, it also increased the impact of the epidemic on the population, who were suddenly deprived of livelihoods and access to the market.

One of Mercy Corps' programs in Liberia focuses on youth employment, and has Chevron as one of its funders. During the Ebola crisis, the program slowed down, but continued working with young people, who needed income more than ever. We were able to place a number of youth as apprentices in local businesses -- allowing those businesses to have sufficient staffing to keep working, and providing opportunity to young men and women at a very bleak time

Economic activity does not stop during a crisis such as Ebola. As an NGO, we value our private sector partners who have been able to keep markets functioning, keep money flowing, at a time when people are at their most vulnerable.

In a public health crisis, firstly, businesses need to ensure the safety of their staff and the continuity of their business. It doesn’t help anyone to panic and simply withdraw. Secondly, businesses can contribute to the immediate response by providing products or funds to support relief efforts. Thirdly, over the longer term, businesses can play a role in strengthening health systems and infrastructures so they are better prepared to detect and respond to future emergencies. 


Zahid Torres-Rahman said:

Let's start with our first question:

Q1: How can business best contribute to tackling public health crisis’ like ebola?

I think it depends a lot on the business. 

Clearly local employers (particularly those operating in rural areas) have a strong role to play in educating and protecting their staff and the communities in which they operate. For instance, one of our portfolio companies, Miro, which operates in rural Sierra Leone was active in putting in doing house-to-house training on how to reduce transmission and also paid for radio spots on local radio carrying public health information. This is just part of their responsibility as a major employer in their local community.

Some other businesses we know were also key service providers to the relief effort - whether that is local logistics and construction companies who were able to mobilise faster than the government in many circumstances to work with NGOs in building response centres. Or someone like Splash Mobile Money who played a role in ensuring that health extension workers were able to receive their salary across the country.

Lorin - thanks for sharing that.

Lorin Kavanaugh-Ulku said:

USAID has just released a call to partnerships for private sector partners in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone to identify new innovations around restoring food production and availability, increasing economic access by supporting food security-related small and medium enterprises to reclaim and grow their businesses and raising the nutritional security of consumers so that they are less vulnerable to shocks or short term food crises. See:http://www.grants.gov/web/grants/search-grants.html

To the earlier comment on de-stereotyping Ebola ... awareness is key, in terms of what this is. SCB created and sponsored a radio soap in Sierra Leone: “Ous kyne tin dis?” (What kind of thing is this?).

The soap features local celebrities and covers social issues and family stories as well as sharing behavioural advice and tips on avoiding Ebola.  We reached half the population this way and busy with series 2.

 

 

However, private sector involvement is not always clear cut and because businesses exist to turn a profit, their interventions are often viewed with some distrust as to their true purpose. This is particularly so for companies with a specific business interest or stake in the crisis, for example pharmaceutical and medical supply companies during the Ebola crisis. Here there is a potential conflict of interest, in order to ensure that there is neutrality and impartiality and that humanitarian relief is provided based solely on needs requires scrupulous accountability and transparency. 

 

The basis of humanitarian intervention should always be the needs of people. OCHA/WEF   have laid out principles  which are meant to serve as a guide to the private sector and the humanitarian community, with an emphasis on communicating key humanitarian principles as well as integrating elements of lessons learnt from previous private sector engagement.

 

 This includes the need for the Private Sector to provide

a)      Transparency and accountability concerning their objectives, funding and potential commercial interests;

b)     Guarantee that involvement should not be exploitative through excessive profiteering, market establishment or brand positioning;

c)      Understanding of/signing up to humanitarian principles – at a minimum sign up to OCHA/WEF principles and be accountable to it.

 

It important to remember that while gifts in kind like vehicles for transportation are crucial to saving lives during a humanitarian crisis financial contributions are often the fastest way to mobilise resources effectively. There have been times when donations in kind in have been inappropriate and actually slowed down the response.  

As with so many things, where local firms are strong and capable they can play a much stronger part in supporting relief efforts - as independent actors and as suppliers to government and NGOs. Where those firms don't exist or the private sector is relatively weak (as it is both Sierra Leone and Liberia) it makes the logistics of the relief effort slower, more complex and more expensive.


David Easton said:

I think it depends a lot on the business. 

Clearly local employers (particularly those operating in rural areas) have a strong role to play in educating and protecting their staff and the communities in which they operate. For instance, one of our portfolio companies, Miro, which operates in rural Sierra Leone was active in putting in doing house-to-house training on how to reduce transmission and also paid for radio spots on local radio carrying public health information. This is just part of their responsibility as a major employer in their local community.

Some other businesses we know were also key service providers to the relief effort - whether that is local logistics and construction companies who were able to mobilise faster than the government in many circumstances to work with NGOs in building response centres. Or someone like Splash Mobile Money who played a role in ensuring that health extension workers were able to receive their salary across the country.



Zahid Torres-Rahman said:

Let's start with our first question:

Q1: How can business best contribute to tackling public health crisis’ like ebola?

Education will be key in the fight against Ebola.Therefore investments in the tools that enhance education will be critical in the the long run. Solar powered lighting for instance can help thousands to study after hours.

The Bank’s experience in dealing with the SARS outbreak in 2003 and flu pandemic in 2009 was invaluable in terms learnings on business continuity and support in a crisis. Two things that stand our are the power of a collective effort and knowlege ...

  • Join Forces! There is strength in numbers
  • Create awareness! Empower the people impacted

It is easier to set up treatment centres than to have affected people seeking help - shifting mindsets takes time - also, for the reverse situation - therefore working with and through key "champions" in communities is critical. World Vision has been working with communities, government ministries, development organisations to improve health, education, food security and protection for children in Sierra Leone for 20 years. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and with support of partners including businesses, we were able to reach 1.56 Mio people with life-saving interventions.

Changing perceptions and raising awareness that translates into improved prevention practises was and is one core element of our work. Through a model called "Channels of Hope" we worked with community leaders, including faith leaders to promote messaging that was addressing fears and rumors, and had been the cause of stigmatization for months. We had used this methodology in Southern Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and we see that only by working with and through the community base, we can be effectively bringing the accurate information to people, including the international public.

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