Y Care International have been working with local YMCAs in Sierra Leone and Liberia since July 2014 to respond to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Photo: Liberia YMCA Y Care International have been working with local YMCAs in Sierra Leone and Liberia since July 2014 to respond to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

By the time the current Ebola outbreak was recognised for what it is – a humanitarian disaster – local actors had already been responding to the crisis affecting their countries. Media in the UK and internationally was filled with photos and stories of the international heroes who were travelling to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to help fight the spread of the disease. They are heroes, without doubt, but what about the national and local organisations and actors who were also working to combat the spread of the deadly virus in communities across their own countries?

Among the lessons learned from the response to this Ebola Outbreak is how vital it is to work with, engage and empower local communities. As Margaret Harris, spokesperson of the World Health Organization (WHO) said recently “Community, community, community. Engagement, engagement, engagement. We need to listen more.” UK Ebola Response Hub head Amanda Weisbaum also said recently that smaller organisations with strong links to communities, having earned the trust of locals, must be used in similar crises.

Not only do local actors and organisations know the culture, traditions and language of the areas in which they work, but they also often have strong relationships with community members themselves, and local leadership. These relationships are so important for catalysing attitude and behaviour change.

The confusion and mistrust around the information being shared on Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – where it had never been experienced before – is a clear example of where messages and information coming from locally trusted sources are so effective.

In an interview carried out by Liberia YMCA, 20 year old Jenneh, a young resident of West Point slum community in Monrovia said “at the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in March 2014, we did not believe that Ebola was real. We all thought it was a political trick to get money.” This exemplified the views of many residents of West Point – which was quarantined in late August 2014.

Jestina, 25, is one of hundreds peer educators trained by Sierra Leone YMCA to help prevent the spread of Ebola in her local community. Photo: Sierra Leone YMCA

Jestina, 25, is one of the hundreds of peer educators trained by Sierra Leone YMCA to help prevent the spread of Ebola in her local community.

In contrast, a recent study carried out by Liberia YMCA and supported by Y Care International in West Point showed that 91% of respondents trusted messages on Ebola coming from trained community members. This compared to 73% who trusted messages from the Government, and 18% from traditional healers.

Knowing the language to use, the best methods to explain the risks, and building trust in the messages through support from local leaders, has made community sensitisation so effective in reducing Ebola transmission. Liberia YMCA built on existing relationships with local leaders in West Point, training a number of community leaders and other stakeholders, alongside young community volunteers, on Ebola and community sensitisation. Not only did this increase the community leaders’ understanding of the virus, its symptoms and transmission; it also galvanised and empowered them to coordinate and support the sensitisation activities taking place in their community.

Empowerment of local leadership has also meant supporting coordination meetings at community level. Y Care International and Liberia YMCA have been doing this in West Point. As a result, Liberia YMCA has noticed an increase in the number of local leaders following up and monitoring Ebola emergency response projects to ensure that they are properly implemented; an increase in community-level monitoring of people sharing Ebola awareness and prevention messages; and increased efforts to improve coordination between NGOs.

Local organisations and local community members have been key to reducing the spread of the disease, which until last week was thankfully on the decline in all three of the worst-affected countries. We must learn from the Ebola outbreak and ensure that working with local partners is something the humanitarian community does for every single disaster.

This blog was written by Y Care International’s Lizz Harrison and was originally published on the ALNAP website on February 19 2015