Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:02 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Crisp Lord Crisp Crossbench 8:02 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, like others I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayman on this very important and timely debate. I also, like others, congratulate the many people from the UK who are playing, and have played, a significant part in tackling these dreadful events. I also note that this is a devastated country. The health issues go far beyond the direct effects of Ebola and there are the economic impacts which we have heard about so fluently. These impacts have been on business, tourism and trade in a country which already had a fragile infrastructure.

When I talk to friends working in Sierra Leone, they tell me that the first thing that the UK and other donors need to do is maintain continuity of support. They pick out three particular areas. The first is sustaining help for local communities to achieve better hygiene and infection control, otherwise there are—as we know—going to be continuing new outbreaks. The second thing they advocate is using some of the money which is now available to continue supporting the salaries of health workers in Sierra Leone and to redistribute some of those health workers to rural areas. The third area is surveillance. We still do not have a very clear picture of what is happening throughout the country and a major effort is still needed there. The final point which has been made—on which I have asked a Written Question and received a reply from the Minister—is about research on rapid diagnosis and other technologies which are starting to be available and the importance of deploying them. A lot of it is just about continuing what we are doing now.

My second point is about learning lessons. I congratulate everyone but I hope that the British Government and others will be listening to the frustrations and learning frankly from many people about problems that have occurred—not just the well-publicised problems with the WHO, but the problems of co-ordination and communication between different agencies and how we can do that better. I also hear some disquieting things about competition between donors and agencies for credit or resources. Those are very worrying aspects of what has happened.

In addition to the existing support, there is a real need for integrated action from the many British agencies that want to help. My noble friend Lady Masham has already mentioned BBC Media Action. Various other people have written to us to say what they can do to help with support. Perhaps the biggest need is for more health workers, a point which the noble Baroness made in introducing the debate. I note the offer from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to bring together the royal colleges on training more health workers. I will come back to that important point, because this is about Africa, not just about what we Brits can do. It is worth noting that Ebola was stopped in its tracks in Uganda, Nigeria and even in the DRC without external intervention. People had just enough skills and abilities to do that. Africans have contributed an enormous amount to this and there is some fear about directive intervention from outside as a result of these problems. There is a danger that we will—with the best will in the world and the best intentions—be imposing our solutions from outside rather than from within.

There is a considerable African response; there is great community knowledge. We should be able to draw on African leadership and not perpetuate the dependence which is too often associated with aid. It is interesting to note that the World Bank, and others, have picked up on the important point of developing and training community health workers: local people who understand local customs and are better able to institute and support changes in customs that may be dangerous and to introduce new habits and norms to promote health, well-being and hygiene. I hope the Government, and others looking at this, will think about education and training in terms of three levels. The first is the need for community health workers who are local people—very often village women—who are trained to identify and support things at a local level. Then there is the need for classic, African, mid-level nurses and other workers who are doing things that doctors do in our country. There is also the need, proposed by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, for the specialists: more paediatricians and clinicians of various sorts. There needs to be an integrated education and training plan but, importantly, this also needs to involve the development of institutions. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, referred to a Marshall plan. There is a need here for the sort of approach that recognises that it is not a matter of training a few health workers, or providing a few drugs and facilities: it is institution-building and supporting the development of the economy.

Finally, I hope the UK will play a major role here. We have so many people who are willing and able to help, coming from all sectors of our community. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about how this will be handled but I suggest that there is a great deal to be gained from bringing together some of these people, who may be outside the normal DoH and Department for International Development systems, and challenging them on how they can help, always bearing in mind my point about African leadership. This is about Sierra Leone, but it could also be about showing what can be achieved by a determined global effort in a country that needs global solidarity.