Ebola crisis linked to neoliberal economics

Liberia: the hardest-hit country has seen 3,000 cases of Ebola and almost 1,600 deaths

by Bill Bonnar The Ebola crisis which has ravaged parts of West Africa has gripped world attention. Around 3,000 deaths; perhaps many more caused by a virus which ignores state boundaries. Despite strenuous efforts by national governments and a large if belated international response there appears little evidence that the epidemic is being contained. Most observers expect that things will become much worse before they get better. 

All this poses a central question. Why did the outbreak occur in West Africa? Ebola is a ‘third world’ disease where deaths are caused as much by lack of basic health resources and lack of state structures as the virus itself. If the Ebola virus had broken out in Britain it would have been contained within days and become a footnote in next week’s news. Which poses a question; why are health services in this part of the world so poor?

The standard argument is one of underdevelopment but this argument increasingly falls short. There are many ‘third world’ countries with relatively well developed and resourced health services where such an outbreak would have been dealt with efficiently and effectively. Cuba springs to mind.

The problem with many of these countries is not the lack of economic development but the nature of that development. According to the Financial Times if you made a league table of the countries which currently have the highest levels of economic growth in the world; half of them would be in Africa. As it happens most of these are in the West African countries most affected by the outbreak.

These countries often combine the worst of all worlds. Underdeveloped state structures and rampant free market capitalism. This means that economic growth largely benefits a rich and corrupt elite who spent their money on luxury goods or sent it out of the country. Little of this money actually trickles down to the vast majority of the people who live in poverty or is invested in productive parts of the economy.

At the same time the combination of poor state structures and weak corrupt governments mean that little is spent on infrastructure programmes such is the as education, housing, transport energy and of course health. The contrast is the economic model being practised in those Latin American countries government by left wing governments which combines economic growth with social justice programmes and long term investment in the infrastructure of society.

The failure of the model of social and economic development in West Africa graphically highlighted by the Ebola crisis is a massive blow to those who argue that the key to tackling underdevelopment in Africa and elsewhere is neoliberalism; that heady mixture of free market economics, non-government interference and increasing integration into the global capitalist economy.

Where this model has been successfully applied in places like the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone, the outcome has been stark with disjointed economic growth, growing inequality, increased corruption, floundering public services and governments more concerned with enriching themselves that planning for the future.

As for the link between capitalist economics and the furthering of freer and more open societies; all the evidence points in the opposite direction. This model needs to be replaced by one of ‘progressive nation building’ to quote the late President of Tanzania, Julius Nyere. The combination of democracy and strong state institutions, long term investment in social infrastructure and an economic model based on promoting the wellbeing of the majority of society.

Above all protecting the country from global capitalist interests which Nyere described as predatory. To paraphrase from a widely used slogan, Another Africa is possible – one where outbreaks such as Ebola are consigned to the history books.

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