In 2015, as part of the UK government’s contribution to the anti-Ebola operation in Sierra Leone, Minerva SRM deployed a consultant as the team leader of a District Ebola Response Centre. Our government client sought a rapid improvement in the quality and quantity of Ebola-related reporting from hard-to-reach communities, as well as a shift in the concept of operations away from emergency ‘fire-fighting’ towards a practical mechanism that would sustain the Ebola eradication programme as international assistance was gradually drawn down.
Previously, the potential of community engagement to deliver this outcome had been undervalued and left to numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs), all of which brought different methods, messages, capabilities and agendas to the task. Moreover, they operated under the mistaken assumption that all national and sub-national leaders legitimately represented the citizens of their communities, resulting in a fixation on engaging with Paramount and Section Chiefs at the expense of less visible parts of the community. Consequently, community co-operation with the anti-Ebola effort was piecemeal, tainted by corruption and typically ineffectual, allowing Ebola cases to go unreported, uncontrolled and untreated.
Minerva SRM developed a new integrated and resource-effective strategy that employs community engagement as its keystone. Our analysis identified where and how the existing approach was failing, while a deep understanding of the likely human-factor challenges – drawing on analogous experience gained in Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria – enabled our consultant to design and implement a plan that ensured community engagement would be properly managed and monitored over time.
Using Minerva SRM’s methodology for contextual analysis and intervention planning, the team assessed each chiefdom down to section level, in order to understand how affected communities were responding to Ebola outbreaks and to pinpoint areas that were dangerously silent regarding their reporting of Ebola cases and burials. To circumvent the influence of unrepresentative chiefs, the team refocused engagement on ’invisible’ community levels, rather than so-called key leaders. Co-ordination and control was exercised by a central command room; every NGO and local government partner was held accountable for a specific location; and formalised working practices eliminated the mixed messages that were hindering community co-operation.
Consequently, in place of the vague and confused activities of previous months, outreach was extended, communications improved and previously reluctant rural communities began to participate in the reporting system. Reports of illness and deaths began to flow in from chiefdoms where the new approach was implemented. For the first time it became possible to forecast where an Ebola outbreak might occur, enabling the pre-emptive dispatch of staff to vulnerable areas and to engage with the affected community. The initial weak social licence to operate has therefore been transformed into a robust one that delivers the greater quantity and higher quality of Ebola-related information that is essential to sustaining the ongoing response operation.