The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has highlighted the risks major public health threats can pose to extractive projects. We assess how companies can most effectively respond to disease outbreaks so that staff and community safety is improved.
By Huw Parker, Analyst
Beyond tragically impacting human lives, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has thrown into sharp relief the extent to which public health threats can also compromise the success of extractive projects. Epidemics can affect workforces, disrupt supply chains, necessitate staff evacuations, and generate tension between companies, their communities and host governments.
Drawing upon the recent experience of extractive firms in West Africa, this article outlines a few of the lessons learned on how a company can most effectively manage a major public health threat.* It draws on a broader, in-depth client assignment on the topic, for which our client has given permission for the publication of some findings.
In short, through proactive collaboration with governments, health organisations, civil society groups, and communities, a company can facilitate the swifter neutralisation of an outbreak while strengthening key stakeholder relations. An isolationist response in contrast – involving battening down the hatches and waiting for other actors to deal with the crisis – does little to relieve the source of the threat, and risks the alienation of host governments and communities.
The pointers below are applicable not only to companies in West Africa (where Ebola is expected to remain a periodically recurring threat), but for any company working in regions prone to health hazards. The lessons also hold pertinence and value for all firms seeking to improve their stakeholder engagement more generally, whether this is before, during, or after crises.
Among the key steps companies should take are:
Offer material and logistical support to governments and health authorities
Epidemics can pose major challenges to the governments of affected countries, stretching already limited capacity and creating social and economic crises. In West Africa, the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone strongly criticised extractive firms that withdrew from the region without offering assistance. Companies can demonstrate themselves to be responsible corporate citizens by providing both immediate and long-term material and logistical support during and after epidemics:
- During a crisis. At a basic level, companies should offer material support to governments, international health organisations, and local civil society groups supporting relief efforts. This can be in the form of money, equipment, food, vehicles, or personnel. More advanced approaches include building emergency treatment centres, housing and catering international health workers, and offering external organisations the use of company facilities to alleviate critical capacity shortages.
- Long-term support. To improve the long-term healthcare of host communities, companies should consider building ‘integrated’ health clinics that treat company staff and communities alike (a company we spoke to as part of this research does this in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ebola is also a periodically occurring threat). Doing so allows for the provision of high quality medical care while enabling company doctors to closely monitor any changes to local health trends and spot outbreaks of disease early. Companies can go further in their long-term support by funding, constructing and equipping medical research centres and hospitals, providing an enduring contribution to local and national medical capacity.
Build community awareness
A lack of education amongst communities and a proliferation of misinformation was a significant cause for the remarkable speed with which Ebola spread throughout West Africa. Companies will often have strong local networks and, particularly in rural areas, better access to communities than public health authorities. They may therefore be well-placed to promote educational initiatives that improve disease detection, prevention and reporting practices in a culturally appropriate way:
- During a crisis. A basic approach to enhancing awareness during an epidemic involves dispatching company doctors into nearby towns and villages to hold workshops and provide training on disease prevention and the use of medical and sanitation equipment. Advanced approaches could include funding radio air-time to broadcast health messages to rural populations. One of the companies spoken to as part of Critical Resource’s research, for example, reached out to 40-50,000 people in Guinea via this method.
- Long-term. A company can sustain awareness around disease prevention by periodically conducting mass education campaigns (something Newmont does in Ghana for instance). To be more proactive, a company can seek to identify and invest in innovative platforms for communicating health messages, such as online e-learning courses.
Collaborate with other companies
Many companies have limited experience and capabilities in managing large-scale public health threats. Firms should therefore seek wherever possible to form partnerships with other private sector actors to coordinate responses and share lessons learnt.
- During a crisis. Sharing information and resources with other companies can enhance the collective vigilance of a region and facilitate a coordinated response. This approach can be advanced by establishing formal nationwide and regional information-sharing networks. In West Africa, the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group (EPSMG) links over 80 companies throughout the region.
- Long-term. By maintaining information-sharing networks after crises end, companies can ensure the lessons learnt are shared widely. Such networks can also help the private sector remain abreast of potential future outbreaks.
*This note is a reflection on best practice approaches to stakeholder engagement and collaboration during epidemics, and does not offer specific medical advice. For information on how to protect staff and assets from various diseases, companies should consult qualified health authorities such as the World Health Organisation. When faced with a major public health hazard, it is imperative companies seek to fully understand the nature of the threat immediately in order to tailor their responses appropriately.