News blog

Fighting the Ebola outbreak on the ground

Mike Noyes's picture Mike Noyes Head of Humanitarian Response

In the last few days, the media has been awash with speculation that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could reach Britain. Whilst the risk is slight and our effective and well organised health services should be able to handle any threat posed, the level of public interest reflects the fear this terrifying disease inspires.

Kadiatu Lamboi teaches villagers how to recognise and contain Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Kadiatu Lamboi teaches villagers how to recognise and contain Ebola in Bo, Sierra Leone
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

Imagine then how much more frightening it must be in the communities on the frontline of the outbreak, in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. My colleagues in Sierra Leone tell me people view hospitals in the affected areas as death zones and people who are sick are afraid to go for treatment in case their neighbours suspect they are carrying Ebola. 

Talk of enforcing quarantines on whole villages and carrying out door to door searches, actions which effectively criminalise people for falling sick and being scared, only serves to make the problem worse.

Cutting through fear to spread messages of prevention

In the communities where we work, ActionAid is getting the message out that, whilst there is a real need to be concerned, simple effective hygiene and preventative measures can do a lot to reduce the risk of infection and disrupt the spread

Good hand washing, the use of disinfectants and avoiding physical contact, especially with sick people, all make a big difference. By working with local volunteers and community leaders, we’re making sure these messages come from people whom families trust and are not seen as an outside message from strangers.

We are also working closely with local radio stations, the most common source of news and information in these isolated rural communities. Our aim is to provide consistent factual information about Ebola to people who feel frightened and confused. We are working to fight the myths that surround this horrific virus, helping people to protect themselves and contain it at source.

Economic implications of the Ebola outbreak

At ActionAid we’re also becoming increasingly concerned about the effect this outbreak is having on poor families in the affected communities. With markets closed or slowed down and with the price of hygiene materials like soap and bleach rocketing as demand outstrips supply, the outbreak is having an economic impact as well. 

Once the immediate threat is over, thanks to our long term presence in the districts we’re working in, we’ll be able to support people to recover economically from the shock.

The fight against Ebola is far from over

We’re now about half way through our planned 45-day campaign in Sierra Leone, and whilst so far the outbreak in the districts where we are working has stayed relatively stable, we cannot afford to be complacent. Appeal funds from our supporters are allowing us to plan for a continuation of the campaign and to expand our work in other parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia to keep spreading messages of prevention.

Find out more about Ebola:

Lidl supermarket claims it is proud to pay tax – but will it be a turning point?

Richard Grange's picture Richard Grange Senior Media Officer (News and Current Affairs)

Lidl supermarket yesterday hit back at allegations of a lack of transparency in its financial affairs by saying that it was proud to pay tax.

Isle of Shady - tax haven stunt on the South Bank
Isle of Shady - protesting against tax avoidance
Photo: ActionAid

The low-cost supermarket chain said: “At Lidl we believe that every company has a social and economic responsibility to pay tax in correspondence with its earnings.

“Furthermore we do not engage in any tax-avoidance schemes, nor do we have any subsidiaries in low-tax countries.”

They also announced they paid £25 million to the UK tax authorities last year.

Now, as any lawyer will tell you, a simple story like that can hide a multitude of meanings. To know whether Lidl is paying its fair share of tax, you would need full, open access to its accounts.

What value is there to a brand in being seen to pay its tax?

On the face of it, this positive message on tax is an encouraging statement. It also raises an interesting theoretical question which has applications for the brands operating in poor developing countries where ActionAid works.

Could being seen to pay your tax actually give you a commercial advantage, especially in an ultra-competitive sector like supermarkets?

Would an approach which says – “we are proud to pay our tax and proud to show how much we pay” – actually enhance a brand?

Would consumers vote with their feet – as they did by boycotting Starbucks – when they are shown one brand resorts to complicated and opaque structures to avoid tax while competitors do not? 

With the growth of tax justice campaigning in the UK over the last few years, these are the questions many boardrooms may now be weighing up, on whether perceived benefits of avoiding tax outweighs the value to a brand of paying its fair share.

It’s just a question. But with the growth of tax justice campaigning its a question many boardrooms may now be weighing up, on whether perceived benefits of avoiding tax outweighs the value to a brand of paying its fair share.

 

Today marks 100 days since 276 girls were seized from their boarding school in Chibok in Borno state in the north-east of Nigeria.

ActionAid speaks to relatives of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls as they spend 100th day in captivity
Photo: ActionAid

The girls were aged between 16 and 18 and were taking exams at the school which was one of the few still open in the area. Around 50 girls managed to escape, the rest were taken by Boko Haram militants into the remote Sambisa forest.

In May a video of some of the girls was released by Boko Haram, an extremist group whose aim is to set up an Islamic state in Nigeria and whose name means "western education is a sin". They offered to hand them over in exchange for the release of militant prisoners. Nothing has been heard of them since.

This month, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for championing the right of girls to education, visited Nigeria to meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and the families of the kidnapped girls and pledge her support for their release. But it is now 100 days since the abduction and the families fear the world's attention has moved on and they will never see their daughters again.

Interviews with abducted schoolgirls' families

Last week ActionAid spoke to members of the Chibok community and some of the families of the kidnapped girls, who are still going through agony - not knowing what happened to their daughters and sisters.

Shaku, 16, brother of one of the abducted girls, told ActionAid: “I was the one who took my sister Saratu and our cousin Elizabeth to school. It was the week before they were abducted and I borrowed my father’s motorbike to take them.

“I loved my sister very much. She is my older sister and sometimes she would call me and say: “Let us go and read” and we would read together and she would help teach me things that I didn’t know. When I remember these things, I can’t sleep and I start to cry.”

Rhoda, 20, sister of another one of the girls, added: “The day I heard about the kidnappings it was in the afternoon. I heard about the abductions and was thinking this was my sister’s school even before it was confirmed. I couldn’t eat that day, my heart was beating so fast.  To this day my body doesn’t feel good, I’ve been feeling ill all the time since then.

“My sister liked reading, she wanted to be a lawyer. Among all of us, she was the one who liked going to school most. She was very intelligent. She is younger than me, but she was a better student than I am.”

It’s heartbreaking to hear their words, - and you can see how upset they are in the interview at the top of this page  - but it is not just the immediate families that are affected. The kidnapping as well as other attacks by Boko Haram means that many parents living in the wider area do not want to let their daughters go to school for fear of them being abducted or killed. This is a terrible consequence of the violence in a country which is already home to over 10 million of the 57 million out of schoolchildren in the world - more than any other country.

Working to get girls into school in Nigeria

ActionAid has worked for many years to promote education, particularly for girls, in Nigeria. We work with parents, pupils, teachers, community leaders and religious leaders to make the case for girls’ education and challenge entrenched attitudes which prevent families sending their daughters to school.

We are pressing local authorities to recruit more female teachers, since Muslim parents are more likely to send girls to school where their teacher is a woman. We have seen how something as simple as the construction of sanitation facilities, particularly separate lavatories for girls, has encouraged many pupils to stay in school.

We also promote girls' clubs to create safe spaces for secondary school girls to meet and interact amongst themselves, while building their confidence and learning about life changing topics and issues. Weekly activities include skills training sessions from local business women such as sewing, knitting and doughnut-making. In some schools girls have put their new skills into practice by providing school lunches, and supporting one another’s examination fees.

Read more about our work on education in Nigeria here.

“I often think of suicide”. This is the final line from a young girl whose story was sent to me this week. This girl is 16 years old and from Ghana. She was forced to undergo female genital mutilation as a small child and was told that having her genitals mutilated would make her attractive to potential husbands and ensure she was faithful to him. 

Girls use song and dance to send an anti-FGM message
Girls in Kenya use song and dance to send an anti-FGM message
Photo: ActionAid

This 16 year old girl now spends her time talking to others about the horrible effects of female genital mutilation in the hope that other girls won’t have to go through the same.

We're at the Girl Summit

This story amongst many that we read daily, is one reason we’re at today’s Girl Summit, hosted by the UK Government and aimed at tackling female genital mutilation child and early forced marriage.

Organisations from across the globe have gathered in London to listen and share collective expertise of working to eradicate these practices. They will discuss which approaches work and make commitments to end FGM and forced early marriage together.  Hopefully if we can all make these commitments individually and stick to them collectively we won’t in future see stories of girls who contemplate suicide because they have been mutilated.

Some facts about child, early forced marriage and female genital mutilation

One girl in seven in the developing world is married before she reaches the age of 15. Girls married young are more likely to experience violence, abuse and rape. The impact of early forced marriage is wide reaching; girls tend to drop out of school and are trapped with no education and no economic choices.

Three million girls a year are at risk of female genital mutilation. It exists because it has been seen as a social norm, one that in some communities often leads directly to child marriage. The procedure has devastating effects, including long lasting health and psychological complications.

As part of today’s Girl Summit we have committed to four key areas, to:

  • Share our understanding and any research on what works to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation.
  • Increase contact with relevant groups such as feminist, religious, youth and child rights groups in our five key countries and globally.
  • Join together with other organisations and programmes to build momentum and advocate for ending female genital mutilation and child and early forced marriage.

The race to contain Ebola - photos from the frontline of an epidemic

Natalie Curtis's picture Natalie Curtis Journalist - Emergencies and Content

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is believed to have killed more than 4,500 people already. ActionAid is in the field in Sierra Leone with rapid outreach, teaching rural communities how to contain the virus.

ActionAid Sierra Leone is running an urgent Ebola awareness raising campaign in Kono and Bo.

We are giving out Government approved health messages in the form of flyers, radio jingles and door to door visits.

The images from Kenema are for illustrative purposes only and do not form part of ActionAid's health education outreach programme. 

Photos: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

I've just returned from an ActionAid Country Directors’ Forum, which among other things looked at what is going on in the world right now and identified the key challenges that we all face over the next 10 years.

Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India
Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India
Photo: Ranjan Rahi/ActionAid

Big topics were on the agenda as ActionAid country directors from Africa, Asia and the Americas met to discuss some of the key issues and trends they have to deal with every day in their work on behalf of the world's poorest people.

Discussions included climate change, religious fundamentalism and extremism, youth and what changing demographics mean in a country context, and the shift in global power structures and balances.

I’m talking here about the rise of the BRICS nations meeting this week in Brazil – those five major emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that have large fast-growing economies and significant influence on regional and global affairs.

We also discussed the changing role of the private sector and the changing face of charities and what we are there to do.

If we don't deal with climate change than no other issue matters

Many of these issues are identified in our current strategy but I was pleased that climate change came out much more strongly than I have previously seen in ActionAid global discussions.

There was one particularly telling quote from Farah Kabir who runs ActionAid's programmes in Bangladesh. She said: "If we don't deal with climate change then no other issue matters."

Farah should know. She's been instrumental in establishing a model 'climate proof' village. This is a civil engineering project that literally raised a village metres off the ground so that its families are safe when floods occur.

Her experiences reflect what I’ve seen when visiting other countries were we work. Environmental realities are undoubtedly getting worse. Poor people are already feeling the impact of climate change and of increasing natural disasters.

Some quick statistics on the impact of the increasing frequency of natural disasters: in the last 20 years, 1.3 million people have been killed, 4.4 billion affected with US$2 trillion in damages.

The rise of religious fundamentalism was also much more strongly expressed and again this is driven by the reality faced on the ground in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The impact of global economic and political trends on women's rights

ActionAid volunteer facilitator Hawa Jalloh conducts an Ebola awareness session.ActionAid volunteer Hawa Jalloh conducts an Ebola awareness session. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

Underpinning all of the discussions was the reflection that these emerging trends negatively impact women’s rights  – particularly sexual and reproductive rights – and even that previous gains are in real danger of being reversed.

Conflict too, in many of the countries in which we work, is increasing women’s vulnerability with violence against women being deliberately used as a weapon of subjugation for entire communities. We only have to look at what is happening in DR Congo to understand how real this threat is.

So it was clear to me by the end of the meeting that gender equality has to be top of ActionAid’s list of priorities; that there has to be an even stronger emphasis on empowering women in the areas in which we work and on highlighting gender in the national and international campaigns that we run.

And while I’m writing about women’s rights, I would like to pay tribute to our brave female volunteers in Sierra Leone.

As you read this they will be going door-to-door telling friends and neighbours how to protect themselves from Ebola and about the importance of seeking treatment in what is now the world’s worst outbreak.