Picking Up the Pieces: The Role of Microfinance Institutions in Post-Ebola Recovery

> Posted by Aissatou Diallo, Special Assistant to the CEO, BRAC USA

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For the three countries most affected by Ebola – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – the impact of the disease on society came in waves. The first wave happened around March, after the virus was first confirmed in the region. It was characterized by denial, disbelief, and a general numbness. The second wave, in May, happened as the disease spread geographically with a corresponding increase in cases and deaths. During this time, people felt overwhelmed. Even though a lot of people still doubted that the disease existed, they knew something was wrong because people were getting sick and dying at an alarming rate. The third wave, in August, blew the lid wide open on shortcomings and vulnerabilities in the region as Ebola spun out of control. Health systems collapsed, schools closed, communities were quarantined, and supply chain systems broke down. People lived in fear.

These factors contributed to severe economic losses in the region, especially for actors in the informal economy (e.g. traders and farmers) who depend on moving freely to sell their goods at markets and have little financial flexibility or cushion to absorb a shock to the system.

I just returned from a five-week trip to Liberia. In the towns and villages I visited, people told me that August was characterized by bleakness and despair. Communities looked like ghost towns, social ties were weakened, and there were sick people dying on the streets because no hospitals or care facilities were available.

Microfinance organizations in the region were not spared either. BRAC, the organization I work for, operates one of the most robust microfinance programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It provides microloans and small enterprise development training to women and marginalized families to help them start businesses. In August, movement restrictions went into place and BRAC was forced to suspend operations and refocus its efforts to help stop the spread of Ebola.

At that time, the priority– at both the national and community level – was stopping the disease. As with other disaster relief operations, survival took precedence over economic impact. Countries focused on improving Ebola case management, which hinged on more Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs), better transportation for patients, and shifting community attitudes toward Ebola prevention measures such as safe burials. (See post by Jeffery Riecke on our work in the region and activities during this period.)

It was a difficult time for many of BRAC’s borrowers. An initial assessment conducted in Liberia shows that 22 percent of BRAC borrowers were significantly affected by the effects of Ebola: they were forced to migrate, lost their businesses, got sick, died, or lost family members. An additional 33 percent experienced adverse impact on their businesses. For instance, I met a BRAC borrower in Liberia named Miatta who got sick, but survived. However, she lost six family members: her husband, three daughters, a grandchild, and a son-in-law. Her poultry business took a huge hit and one of her surviving daughters, also a borrower, lost her business because people refused to buy from her after she was released from the hospital.

Today, each of the three most affected countries has sufficient capacity to isolate and treat patients, with more than two treatment beds per confirmed, probable, and even suspected case. Each country also has the ability to bury everyone known to have died from Ebola. In addition, community engagement through Ebola messaging has taken root in the mainstream consciousness. Overall, things are, for the first time since the initial outbreak last March, under control.

The region is on a steady path for recovery. The big questions Liberians and Sierra Leoneans must now face are: In what position does this outbreak leave us? And where do we go from here?

These questions cover the immediate social and economic fallout from the disease as well as the long-term repercussions on health, food production and distribution, education, livelihoods, and financial inclusion systems in the region.

Short-term recovery is needed to boost households so they can survive. The national governments and groups like the World Bank have identified need for assistance to trigger economic recovery at the community and household level where the impact of the virus is severe. In addition, the Government of Liberia has publicly called for a redeployment of funds to long-term development initiatives like microfinance. BRAC is fully on-board with this call and has identified March 1, 2015 as the date to resume all operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

But what do you offer borrowers like Miatta? What contributions do you make to strengthen these fragile economies? You resume operations and provide financial relief to business people like Miatta who desperately need it. That means creating discrete loan write-offs to ensure borrowers like Miatta’s daughter who have lost their business don’t sink further into debt and can start contributing to the economy.

As a recent Devex article succinctly puts it: “With loans in hand, business owners can take the first steps toward rebuilding their lives — whether that involves buying chickens for poultry farms, hiring labor to work on family crops, or purchasing a reliable vehicle to make business deliveries.”

Aissatou is Special Assistant to the CEO, BRAC USA. A native of the Mano River Union, she earned her academic stripes at the University of Ghana Business School, UCLA School of Law, and New York University where she was part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Fellows. Prior to joining BRAC USA, Aissatou worked in the private and public sectors in Liberia, Ghana, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. before settling down in New York to qualify as a lawyer and briefly practice securities litigation.

Have you read?

Microfinance and the Economic Toll of Ebola

BRAC Microfinance Director Shameran Abed on Client Protection, Balancing Credit and Savings, and the Evolving Financial Inclusion Landscape

Microfinance Does Health Care