Why West Africa’s Ebola fight matters in the West

My boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, has just announced a $130 million increase in British aid to fight Ebola in West Africa. Even before that announcement, Britain and the United States were already the two biggest single country donors in the struggle against the virus. Between us, we have pledged many hundreds of millions of dollars.

At a time when our economies are still fragile back home, why spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars (or pounds or Euros) helping foreign countries so far from our shores?

{mosads}One reason should be pretty obvious. In this globalized age, where airliners can whisk passengers around the world in a matter of hours, infectious disease spreads quickly. We have already seen a small number of transmissions on American and Spanish soil.

Some have called for restrictions on travel. That’s a tempting course of action, but it would not work. In fact, it would exacerbate the problem by making it more difficult for essential medical supplies and personnel to reach the disease’s epicentre and by hindering American and British volunteer health workers returning home for much needed relief. Desperate people would look to escape the affected zone by any available means, creating a refugee crisis and spreading the infection in an even more chaotic way.

Instead, to stop the virus, we must go to the source. We Brits are among those doing just that, and we are proud of the leadership role we have taken. We have raised our financial contribution to around $330 million. More than 700 British medical staff have volunteered to go to Sierra Leone, and we are training 120 more healthcare workers every week. We are also deploying 750 troops to help build treatment centres and assist with the logistics of treating thousands of patients.

While the UK takes the lead on Sierra Leone, the United States concentrates its efforts in Liberia and France focuses on Guinea. Donor countries and charities from all over the world have pledged their support, thanks partly to the international conference the UK hosted in London earlier this month. Last week, the Prime Minister successfully pushed his fellow European leaders for additional pledges that have taken Europe’s total commitment to over a billion Euros. These pledges are a great start. But, as both President Obama and David Cameron have said, the world must do more to confront Ebola at its source. 

This year, Britain became the first G7 country to spend the agreed target of 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid. That points to a wider lesson. In the overall scheme of things, international development does not cost wealthy countries like ours a lot; but that investment goes a long way. Just in the past year, British aid has reached a million typhoon survivors in the Philippines, provided tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis with basic essentials like food and blankets, and helped kick-start small businesses in East Africa. Given how little it costs to provide, it’s our moral duty as rich nations to help those in desperate need.

Aid is also a national security issue. Infectious disease is just one of the international problems created when countries lack the basic infrastructure and stable government that we take for granted. Such places can produce refugee flows that destabilise entire regions. They can become bases for terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 2001 and ISIL in Syria and northern Iraq today. We can, and should, help fragile countries to develop the infrastructure and governance they need, preferably before they slip into crisis. It is not only the right thing to do; it is also in our own interest. It will make us more secure, and in the longer term, it will help make us more prosperous by developing new markets for trade and investment.

For all these reasons, we in Britain have committed to increasing our aid budget, even as we make savings elsewhere. Today, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are at the centre of a grave economic, public health and security challenge. But with our help, they can conquer this disease and go on to greater stability and prosperity.

Westmacott is UK ambassador to the United States.

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