Slow and Meager: Funding for Ebola a Model of Dangerous Inadequacy

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October 17, 2014;CNN Money

Marc Zuckerberg’s $25 million gift to the Centers for Disease Control may yield very positive results for the fight against Ebola in West Africa and here at home, though the CDC’s performance in recent weeks hasn’t exactly infused Americans with confidence. Although the U.S. has important roles to play in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and undoubtedly elsewhere in West Africa as Ebola spreads, the roles for international agencies, particularly the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, are also significant—but, just like for the CDC, it takes money for the World Health Organization and others to function.

In response to UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s establishment of a fund in September to raise $1 billion to fight the disease, as of last Friday, the total raised was $100,000 from the government of Colombia. That’s out of pledges from governments that totaled only $20 million. Another $19 million in cash donations and in-kind gifts has been promised by corporations, but that, too, is lagging. The $100,000 doesn’t include the more than $365 million that has been donated directly to specific international agencies to fight Ebola, but reflects the total contribution to date to the UN’s trust fund, which would help support numerous efforts.

Part of the reason might be donor fatigue after major international efforts to raise money for Haitian disaster relief (and that money, too, fell short) and the Japanese earthquake. Both of those fundraising efforts occurred when the national and international economies were much weaker than they are now. Some responsibility might fall at Ban’s doorstep. Ban hasn’t exactly knocked over the public with his leadership qualities, and it didn’t help that he initially called the $20 million in pledges actual grants and then had to backtrack.

While either or both might be true, our guess is that the problem is the scale of the crisis. At the same time Secretary General Ban made his announcement, the World Health Organization announced that the death toll from the current Ebola outbreak had reached 4,555, with tens of thousands more vulnerable. Institutional and corporate donors may be looking at Ebola and determining that much of the solution is off in the future and that it is too big for local and regional to grasp and address.

Ban is right that an international effort is needed to deal with Ebola. But stopping Ebola means working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other institutional bodies often seen on the front lines of major social catastrophe but, at the same time, also perceived sometimes as bureaucratic and ineffective.

We don’t buy into the latter explanation, but it is clear that Ebola’s rise has been abetted by inadequate early funding and attention to the crisis—particularly money at the outset for the WHO—and further harmed by the CDC’s lackluster performance to date. Our guess is that Ebola money might even be harder to raise funds for than the Haitian earthquake, and many more people will die in West Africa and elsewhere until the world makes the investment needed in this strategy.—Rick Cohen