For several years, Ebola has been ravaging our continent, especially communities in Central and West Africa. It is exacting a severe human toll and causing significant economic losses in places already burdened by extreme poverty. My homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now battling its tenth Ebola outbreak since 1976.
His words ring true today, as we face global crises – natural disasters, pandemics, violent conflicts, financial crises, and more – that hit rich and poor countries alike, and have lasting consequences especially for the world’s most vulnerable people. They can take the lives of millions of people and cost the world trillions of dollars in damages and lost potential.
The 9th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has officially ended today —77 days and 28 deaths after an outbreak was declared on May 8. For the families of those 28 Ebola victims, the declaration comes too late—a loved one was lost to a disease that should be both preventable and treatable. That is always a needless tragedy.
Only two-and-a-half months ago, another pandemic seemed probable: an Ebola outbreak in three remote provinces, which spread quickly to the urban center of Mbandaka on the busy Congo River, appeared likely to spread rapidly around the country or even the region.
On September 20th, 2017, a young hunter, in his 30s, arrived at a health center in Kween District, located in Eastern Uganda, on the border with Kenya. He had symptoms of fever, bleeding, diarrhea, and vomiting. Within 5 days he was dead. Two weeks later, his sister also showed up at the same health facility: she had similar symptoms. Within a week, she too was dead. Posthumous samples confirmed that she had Marburg Virus Disease (MVD), one of the most virulent pathogens known to infect humans. On 19th October, the Ugandan government notified WHO and publicly announced an outbreak of MVD. Not long after this announcement, MVD claimed another victim – this time, the hunter’s brother.
The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) crisis ended more than a year ago in Liberia. It resulted in over 10,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. For many children, the crisis continues through intrusive memories of illness, isolation, and death. These memories are particularly acute for the children directly affected by Ebola; those that were quarantined, separated from family during treatment, or orphaned. The Liberia Ministry of Health (MOH) identified 3,091 such children, and a World Bank working paper calculated that approximately 4,200 Liberian children lost one or both parents to Ebola.
In March 2014, Liberia announced that there were two suspected cases of Ebola in Lofa and Nimba counties. Six months later, Ebola had spread to 14 of the 15 counties of the country and a state of emergency had been declared. By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Liberia was officially ‘Ebola free’ in May 2015, more than 10,000 Liberians had contracted the virus and the economic fortunes of the post conflict nation had faced a significant downturn.
I’m sure that to readers of this blog the Ebola epidemic that devastated West Africa a couple of years ago needs no introduction (just in case, here’s a nice summary by the Guardian’s health editor). So I’ll cut to the chase, and to a narrative that at the time was bubbling underneath more familiar debates about responding to health crises – you know, things like imperfect governance, fragile health systems, drug shortages.
All of them important, but this narrative was new. It was about fear, communication and cooperation – the human and social side of the crisis (explored in a SciDev.Net collection I commissioned at the time). There was also an unsettling undercurrent to it – one that conveyed ‘otherness’ and ignorance on the part of West Africans, fuelled by reports of violence against health workers and of communities resisting expert advice against risky funeral rites.
But if you listened closely, you could just about make out the voices of anthropologists trying to dispel notions that these reactions were about exotic or traditional cultures. Paul Richards was one of those voices, and luckily he’s put together a rare account of evidence, theory and experience in a book that should trigger real reflection on how we can do better in handling similar crises (hint: more listening).
Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic tells the story of the epidemic through the eyes of someone with intimate knowledge of the region and the rules that influence human interactions – very much an anthropologist’s perspective, not an epidemiologist’s. The book turns the mainstream discourse on its head, putting what Richards calls “people’s science” on an equal footing with the more orthodox science behind the international response. It captures how people and experts adapted to each other, falling into a process of knowledge co-production.
Happy UN Day for South –South Cooperation!
Investment in skills is vital to economic growth and competitiveness and poverty reduction. I believe that there is no better way to do that than to educate young graduates with expertise in high-demand areas to help grow African economies, create jobs, and support research.
How does political context shape education reforms and their success? Lessons from the Development Progress project
Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ – is one of the most important and challenging tasks in international development. In order to fulfil it, we require a better understanding of why progress and the impact of interventions varies so widely by context. One striking gap in our knowledge here is a lack of analysis as to how education systems interact with political contexts that they operate in. This report addresses this gap by drawing on evidence from eight education-focused country case studies conducted by ODI’s Development Progress project and applying political settlements analysis to explore how political context can shape opportunities and barriers for achieving progress in education access and learning outcomes.
Combining satellite imagery and machine learning to predict poverty
Reliable data on economic livelihoods remain scarce in the developing world, hampering efforts to study these outcomes and to design policies that improve them. Here we demonstrate an accurate, inexpensive, and scalable method for estimating consumption expenditure and asset wealth from high-resolution satellite imagery. Using survey and satellite data from five African countries—Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Rwanda—we show how a convolutional neural network can be trained to identify image features that can explain up to 75% of the variation in local-level economic outcomes. Our method, which requires only publicly available data, could transform efforts to track and target poverty in developing countries. It also demonstrates how powerful machine learning techniques can be applied in a setting with limited training data, suggesting broad potential application across many scientific domains. Data imagery of the report is available on the project website.