DFID and the FOI question on half a million pound Ebola spend

by / Comments Off / 365 View / 15th August 2015

In order to uncover the details of the UK government’s spend on Ebola, New Africa Analysis (NAA) posed a question to the Department for International Development, asking for a ‘full and detailed breakdown of how over £400 million was disbursed in Sierra Leone to help fight the Ebola.’  A mirrored question was also asked by the Shadow International Development Secretary, Mary Creagh, who asked the Secretary of State for International Development (DFID) Justine Greening for detailed breakdown and how much of the UK’s funding for Ebola has been spent a) for each purpose, b) in each location and c) on each recipient.
The response received from the DFID to both questions fell short of giving the specifics requested in the enquiries, instead providing a general outline of the ‘response package’ which has been provided so far.  However, following the links provided by the DFID to publicly available websites, the ‘development tracker’ provided some more information about the projects which have been undertaken and their respective costs but still, not in the detailed format requested.
Ebola Vaccines insurance [GB-1-205018] Budget:  £120,516
Sierra Leone Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Facility [GB-1-204876] Budget:  £53,538,984
UK response to Ebola crisis through support for UNMEER and the wider UN system [GB-1-204900] Budget:  £22,500,000
Ebola Care Units in Sierra Leone [GB-1-204896] Budget:  £68,500,001
UK response to Ebola crisis through establishing laboratories [GB-1-204904] Budget:  £12,499,998
Ebola Central Health Care Supply Chain Platform [GB-1-204917] Budget:  £10,000,000
Reducing transmission of Ebola in Sierra Leone though changing behaviours and practices [GB-1-204893] Budget:  £15,500,000
Ebola Treatment Centres in Sierra Leone [GB-1-204890] Budget:  £93,748,071
Transition from Ebola Response to Early Recovery in Sierra Leone in 2015 [GB-1-204967] Budget:  £52,500,000
Emergency support to respond to the Ebola Virus Disease in Sierra Leone 2014 [GB-1-204838] Budget:  £62,750,000
UK response to Ebola Crisis through support for the Joint Inter Agency Task Force (JIATF) [GB-1-204902] Budget:  £33,441,012

When the cost of all the projects relating directly or indirectly to Sierra Leone are added, the sum does amount to approximately £422 million, near the quoted amount.
However, looking more closely at some of the costs brings into question the reliability of some of these figures.  For instance the list quotes that the Kerry Town Hospital cost over £53 million.  Now, no one is trying to doubt the facility’s role in the efforts against Ebola. Or for that matter the overall contributions of the British government. And of course, the importance of time cannot be excluded from any analysis of the response to the virus either. But £53 million pounds for what is essentially a small field hospital does not represent value for money. We can all agree that structural aesthetics alone cannot determine the function of a building, especially a hospital. Medical equipment are central but in this case, medical supplies and equipment seems to come from a different budget, which translates that the £53 million pounds is only for the bear bone structure that is Kerry Town. The vast sums spent on Kerry town were badly derived at, considering the calibre of experts involved in the disbursement. For that amount of money, Sierra Leone should be inheriting at least two brand new Connaught Hospitals, loaded with the latest in clinical equipment. No wonder the Shadow International Development secretary and others in the sector are nonplussed. The money was badly spent. Looking at the Kerry Town structure and outlays elsewhere, it appears the guiding instinct was getting rid of, rather than sensibly spending £424 million of UK tax payers’ money.
No question, Ebola was extremely unfortunate. But considering the unprecedented scale of monies spent on Kerry Town and elsewhere, the crisis demanded a strategy that had at its conception lasting facilities that could be useful for possible future health uses and emergencies. Kerry Town may have served its purpose now. And that is great. But the sensible thing to have done was consider its future use. In a way the manner the money was spent was disrespectful. A case of its only Africa, anything would do. Not even in Britain would such profligacies go unquestioned.
To give an indication of how far £53 million could stretch, contrast the images of Kerry Town’s vast white tented camp to the civic centre of Brent Council in the UK, at a cost of £90 million. Another £37 million added to Kerry Town budget can give you the greenest public building in the UK. And that comparison could be made to a number of, if not all of the published spending areas.
Given the low cost of labour and other factors conducive to such levels of investment in Sierra Leone, it seems hard to believe that such a huge sum could be spent on such a basic facility.  The value of the cost of laboratories also seems very inflated, at £12 million. It would be interesting to see a detailed list of companies that provided the equipment and their various links to United Kingdom’s political class. Including medical personnel and equipment, a 90-bed hospital of a largely temporary structure in Africa should not be costing £53 million. Imagine the outrage if an African government had presided over such spending.
Therefore although the UK government have provided publicly accessible figures of the cost of providing the Ebola support, when these are explored in detail they seem highly inflated and potentially unreliable.  It is also notable that the DFID were apparently unwilling to give the specific details requested around how much the support has cost per person.  Without these specific details, these figures still represent a broad sweep of the situation, rather than a clear and accurate picture. Even if the money is just a fraction of the UK international aid budget, the government should be made to answer questions. Maybe the government of Sierra Leone could chip in with its own questions too.

Fundamentally, this whole Ebola issue and the way the DFiD spent the money has thrown up some very pertinent questions on Africa’s relationship with Western aid. Huge sums were sanctioned but who actually gained? How many Sierra Leonean or African companies were able to command a slice of the total money spent? To what extent, if any at all, was the Sierra Leonean economy boosted by the reported £424 million spent on Ebola. Even the temporality of the Kerry Town structure itself, some sceptics of Western aid could say is perfectly in line with making sure the need for future aid that only benefit Western corporations exists. Where the records of procurements are released, it would be revealed that at least 90% of the £424 million was spent with British and other Western companies with minimal benefit to the local economy.
Finally, Ebola and its response laid bare the poor performances of present and past governments of Sierra Leone not only for underspending on public health and facilities, but also the basic failure to provide training for citizens and creating a society with vibrant civil service and a thriving business sector that is readily prepared to play a role in items and structural procurement. The British Army constructed Kerry Town. Is the Sierra Leonean Army trained for such an assignment? Is it not embarrassing that not a single company in Sierra Leone can manufacture a simple hospital bed, useful in an emergency?

Photo: Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development

Photo credit: walestribune.com