How the aid and development industry helped cause Africa’s Ebola outbreak

Medical anthropologist James Pfeiffer discussing health concerns with members of the community in Gondola District, central Mozambique.

Yeah, that’s a provocative headline. No, we’re not talking about some movie thriller like Constant Gardner, in which an evil drug company does some deadly experimentation on hapless Africans.

We’re talking about reality with a medical anthropologist, James Pfeiffer, about one of the root causes of the massive outbreak of Ebola now ravaging West Africa. It is the aid and development community – the same folks now responding to the rescue.

As the cartoon character Pogo put it: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

According to Pfeiffer, who is a professor of global health and anthropology at the University of Washington, the popular narrative of the Ebola outbreak often points to weak governance, poverty and poor health systems as one of the primary reasons why this infectious disease has exploded in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. That’s absolutely true, he says.

But what is usually not mentioned in the narrative, Pfeiffer adds, is how Western agencies devoted to reducing global poverty like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed policies on these countries (sometimes referred to as structural adjustment) that for decades has discouraged many African nations from investing in public infrastructure – such as basic health care systems.

What is also neglected is that the Western humanitarian community, the NGOs (non-governmental organizations), that are now trying to help – in many cases, courageously – fight this devastation also helped contribute to the weakening of in-country health care services. How? You’ll need to give a listen to Pfeiffer to find out.

And as usual for our weekly podcast, Tom Paulson and I talk about some of the news highlights this week, including the Obama Administration’s massive and very welcome quasi-military response to the Ebola outbreak, the broader Humanospheric implications of independence movements in places like Scotland, in the U.S. (including here, as the Cascadia movement) and how these movements may help empower people in poor countries.

We also talk about Tom Murphy’s report on why buying TOMS shoes may hurt the poor and a new study by Seattle scientists who say the world population is not stabilizing and may reach 11 billion by the end of the millennium.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.

  • Amy Hagopian

    Great interview with James Pfeiffer! He has a wonderful way of bringing together the issues in a way that makes sense and explains how we got into this mess in the first place. Here are a couple of other pieces on how Ebola was spawned by dumb policies:

    A commentary in Huffington Post about Ebola in relation to the need to strengthen the health system: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-anne-mercer/ebola-epidemic-quarantine-health-care_b_5772156.html

    And this video by John Green at Seattle Biomed:
    https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152665624244591&set=vb.66677864590&type=2&theater

  • Steve

    Before James Pfeiffer’s excellent interview you had one Tim Murphy talking about overpopulation. He failed to mention and so did you that evidence has repeatedly shown that the most effective way to limit population growth is to elevate the status of women in those countries. Until “the experts” understand this, it will not happen.

  • mbrenman

    In regard to this, “Western agencies devoted to reducing global poverty like the
    International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed policies on these
    countries (sometimes referred to as structural adjustment)
    that for decades has discouraged many African nations from investing in
    public infrastructure – such as basic health care systems,” that is a paternalistic statement. These countries did have and do have the ability to make their own decisions about how to spend their resources. Some made poor decisions, or have corrupt governance structures.