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Ebola terrified us a year ago. What did it teach us about West Africa?

Artist Stephen Doe paints an educational mural to inform people about the symptoms of Ebola in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The photo was taken Sept. 8, 2014. (Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA)
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“If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s the cliché in journalism that describes why a certain kind of tragedy tends to dominate the news cycle. One year ago today, the World Health Organization declared Ebola an “international health emergency.” But today, coverage of West Africa is beginning its drift into media disinterest as Ebola cases wane. International attention has now largely disappeared along with the sight of biohazard suits and ambulances. Hotels in Liberia that were packed with foreign correspondents last fall are again servicing their more familiar clientele of aid workers and investors. In that this represents the end of the awful days of Ebola’s peak, this is good news for Liberians.

But it would be a mistake to celebrate victory over Ebola and return to the pre-outbreak status quo. The lessons of Ebola reach beyond the preparedness of West African health systems to confront crises, touching on issues that have been critical for the region in recent years: peace, security and how responsive governments are to society’s most vulnerable members. These lessons must be understood before a post-outbreak aid and development agenda is designed.

Liberia (and the world) did some things right

Without a doubt, there is much to be proud of. Local and international initiatives prevented the outbreak from becoming a still more staggering catastrophe. While Liberia lost nearly 5,000 of its citizens to the virus, horrific predictions of hundreds of thousands of cases made last fall by health organizations failed to come to pass. This victory can be attributed to the brilliant performance of medical workers and community volunteers who fought the outbreak. But donors and the government cannot afford to simply congratulate themselves and wind the clock back to February 2014.

When media commentators and policymakers discuss the outbreak, the focus is often on fragile local health systems, the WHO’s substandard performance and the delay in the organized international response. While important, these critiques ignore a central problem that contributed to the severity of the Ebola crisis: the frayed relationship between West African governments and their citizens.

In Liberia, widespread denial of Ebola’s existence was the disease’s greatest ally last summer. The sick hid themselves from sight. Entire communities refused, at first, to cooperate with health workers. People on the street scoffed at the very existence of Ebola. This adversarial and dismissive attitude towards the warnings of state officials has profound implications, reaching far beyond the limited (if important) goal of preventing future epidemics.

Ebola spread because Liberians distrust their government

At the time, many international onlookers were baffled about why so many Liberians were ignoring their government’s increasingly desperate pleas to practice safer behavior. Tired tropes about Africa were proffered as explanations: superstition, limited education and arrogance.

But the answer was much more straightforward and understandable. Years of coping with entrenched corruption, unaccountable officials and a snail’s-pace “development” process that many believe primarily profits elites had eroded the public trust so deeply that even dire warnings about Ebola’s lethality were seen as a cynical attempt to solicit and “eat” international donations. Attitudes changed only after people saw Ebola for themselves.

In a new report just released by the peace-building and research organization International Alert, the perceptions of Liberians from Ebola-affected areas are analyzed through survey data and interviews. The goal was to understand the impacts of the crisis on Liberian citizens, and how they view their government 12 years after the end of the country’s civil war.

The findings are sobering, as you can see in the graph below. Nearly everyone we spoke with from Liberian civil society described pervasive frustration and anger toward the government, which they say stems from popular assumptions that state officials are corrupt and elitist. Surveys of random citizens in heavily affected areas revealed caustically low trust in state institutions like the police, legislators and judges.

Overall, only 10 percent of those who we surveyed said they believe the government consistently tells its citizens the truth.

What international donors need to consider before giving to Liberia

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s government deserves praise for its role in resurrecting a functioning state after Liberia’s devastating war. But the country deserves an honest, public discussion over how this past year’s outbreak reflects on international and local post-war reconstruction efforts, and whether the past decade’s aid agenda has helped create a society that isn’t defined by the elitism, corruption and authoritarianism that contributed to that war.

This discussion must involve not just economists’ figures and charts but also the sociopolitical experience of the country’s poor and middle classes.

Speaking in Brussels this past spring, Johnson-Sirleaf requested a “Marshall Plan” for the region that would cover nearly all its post-Ebola needs. But if international donors decide to deliver massive amounts of aid, it can’t be distributed with the same carelessness and reluctance to request accountability that’s defined international assistance to Liberia in recent years.

Most important, it must be a priority to make average Liberians feel that the development process is working for them. One way to achieve this is to include community groups in monitoring how funds are spent in their neighborhoods. While there are consultations over the design of budgets, they often amount to rubber-stamp exercises. The process very rarely includes actual power or participation rights for the poor. This must change.

The Ebola crisis revealed the power of civil society organizations and community volunteers in solving even the most catastrophic problems, as you can see below. Their energy and intelligence should be harnessed in building a fairer country.

Liberia faces two moments of potential crisis

Liberia is fast approaching two critical moments of transition. First, the United Nations peacekeeping mission that’s been in place since 2003 is scheduled to wind down in the next few years. Second, a new president will be elected in 2017. No clear successor to Johnson-Sirleaf has emerged, leading to nervous chatter over who the next president will be and how he or she will govern the country.

For years, Liberians have worried about what will happen once the government is again fully responsible for maintaining security and keeping the peace. Too often the international community carelessly ignores festering problems in places like Liberia, paying attention only after a crisis has already erupted.

It’s unlikely that Liberia will relapse into violence in the near future. But the suspicion toward government that was exposed during the Ebola crisis needs to be addressed proactively by diplomats and aid workers who carry influence with the country’s leaders.

This summer, a song performed by pop musician Takun J swept across Liberia. The hit song, “They Lie to Us,” excoriates politicians and state officials for neglecting the poor, stealing state funds and failing to deliver the development promised during campaigns. The singer says he has “no one to trust, no one to hope on,” and asks, “Where are the schools and the roads and the jobs?”

To ensure that the international news media will have no reason to flock back to Liberia in the near future, those questions should be answered, and soon.

Ashoka Mukpo is a journalist and researcher who worked with a Liberian civil society organization on accountability campaigns before the Ebola outbreak. While covering the crisis, he contracted Ebola and was treated in the United States. He tweets at @unkyoka.