What happened to all the money pledged to fight Ebola?

A child looks at a man suspected of suffering from the Ebola virus, while holding his hand over his nose, in a main street and busy part in Monrovia, Liberia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

With the Ebola outbreak fading in the rearview mirror, serious questions are emerging over what has happened to all of the money pledged to support the three affected countries. Some $1.9 billion in promised funds have not been disbursed. And it is nearly impossible to track the $3.9 billion that did make it to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Oxfam joins other groups that have tried to bring attention to the flurry of pledges and spending that came at the peak of the outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 11,000 people. The ONE Campaign, a U.S.-based advocacy group, launched its Ebola Response Tracker in order to hold countries and other donors to their promises. It shows that the U.S. disbursed less than 13 percent of the $2 billion it pledged for the emergency response.

Two major problems emerged. First, the money needed for the West African countries to recover and rebuild systems that would prevent the next major health crisis is not available. Second, the way the money that is making it to the countries is so opaque, that it is hard to know if it is used effectively or in the interests of the affected countries. There must be transparency and accountability for the money.

“In order for the countries to quickly build the health systems they require, governments and communities need to know what aid they are getting, when it is coming, where it is going and they need to have a say in how it is used,” said Aboubacry Tall, Oxfam’s regional director for West Africa, in a statement. “We urge donors to ‘put their money where their mouths are’ and demonstrate what transparency really means by, at a minimum, publishing information in accordance with International Aid Transparency Initiative standards.”

The crux of the problem is eerily similar to that of Haiti. Even more money was pledged after the massive earthquake six years ago leveled entire towns and left more than 200,000 people dead. More than $9 billion poured into the country in the aftermath, but it is impossible to know where and how that money was spent.

Vijaya Ramachandran of the think tank the Center for Global Development tried to track all the spending, but did not get very far. The United States spent $3 billion alone, but did not come close to fulfilling its promises to release all of its spending data. For its part, the U.S. government pledged to publish data in the format set by the International Aid Transparency Initiative in late 2012. That promise has yet to yield significant data releases from Haiti, nor changes with regards to how new humanitarian spending is shared.

“When I mentioned to a colleague in CGD’s Europe office (where I am currently based), that I was writing about the earthquake in Haiti, she asked, ‘Everyone’s forgotten about that, right?’” Ramachandran wrote on her blog last year.

While far less money made it to West Africa, the fundamental problems seen in Haiti persist. Few governments met their Ebola pledges and did not set deadlines to disburse the money. And just like Haiti, the concern now is that people will move on and forget to address the fundamental problems that contributed to the rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa.

“The slow identification and response by government health services to the recent cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia clearly demonstrate that they are still not capable of responding effectively to Ebola and other highly contagious diseases,” says the group.

Oxfam uses the numbers as an entry point for people to pay attention that much more significant issue. It worries that little has actually changed since the outbreak. The World Health Organization has come under significant scrutiny for its handling of Ebola, but they are not the only significant international player. Short-term memory loss and short attention spans contribute to repeated problems, as seen by the similarities between the lack of financial transparency for aid to Haiti and West Africa.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.