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View: Growth stalled as ‘unknown enemy’ Ebola descends on region

30/10/14

Minerals and other commodities sales have driven economic growth and inward investment in the Mano River Union (MRU) countries, as post-conflict Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (and newer MRU member Côte d’Ivoire) have enjoyed the dividends of stability. Improved politics have raised the prospects for ‘transformational’ electricity interconnections across a long-underdeveloped region, and for offshore oil finds as investors move into polities too long submerged in militia conflicts and warlord economics. Basic services remain far from adequate but, as a work in progress, the MRU countries have delivered a generally positive story of Africa re-emergent. Ebola has violently challenged that upbeat narrative.

Such is Ebola’s impact that officials and analysts are now seeing the threat of systemic failure. Woefully inadequate health services could not be expected to cope with what Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called the “unknown enemy that descended on us”, and populations have been alienated from authorities which many believe have failed them. The numbers infected may not yet be huge (compared, say, to malaria or tuberculosis), but they are growing fast, and public health services – and other infrastructure – cannot keep pace. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 7,400 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola, and over 3,400 of them have died, since March, in the biggest outbreak on record.

Ebola has crept across Central and West Africa since its debut in Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaïre) in 1976. In nearly four decades, the disease has returned to DRC and its neighbours on several occasions, triggering horrific news stories (the virus has been fatal in between 60% and 90% of recorded cases), but ‘contained’ in regions so poor and isolated that the global medical establishment has not found it essential, or sufficiently profitable, to develop drugs or vaccines. As so often in Africa, a problem has been allowed to fester largely out of international sight, only to reappear in a new, more dramatic manifestation. This time around, the world is paying more attention, seeing the seeds of potential systemic failure in West Africa, as well as potential for Ebola’s spread far beyond the region. United Nations under-secretary-general and head of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative Kandeh Yumkella told a 7 October Royal African Society event in London that Ebola could submerge the efforts of Johnson Sirleaf and other regional leaders to rebuild their economies. His native Sierra Leone had been looking to minerals-fuelled 10%-15% GDP growth this year and, even with Ebola, 4%-5% might be possible, Yumkella said – but only if the disease can be controlled. All Sierra Leone’s efforts to add new generation and transmission capacity have stalled, at least until 2015.

Obviously critical are efforts to stop an epidemic whose spread is so alarming. This depends on still unproven drugs like ZMapp working in commercial quantities, and local health services being hugely upgraded. President Barack Obama on 16 September announced the deployment of up to 4,000 US military personnel to Liberia and Senegal, establishing a ‘joint command’ operation to co-ordinate international efforts. However, The New York Times on 2 October reported that problems of logistics and working in tough West African conditions meant construction of US treatment centres was “still a long way off”.

International planners are looking for the outbreak to be controlled by Q1 2015. Then, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are expected to lead a multi-faceted strategy to put the MRU states back on track. A major economic stimulus package will be greatly welcomed. Its implementation will depend on the Ebola virus, as in the past, receding back into the forest. The alternative is potential societal breakdown in economies too weak to cope, to an extent even the warlords never achieved.

This article was published in Issue 286 of African Energy

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