The Mission to Stop Ebola: Lessons for UN Crisis Response
ADAM LUPEL AND MICHAEL SNYDER
The Ebola epidemic of 2014–2016 was a fastmoving, multidimensional emergency that pre - sented unprecedented challenges for the multi - lateral system. In response to the outbreak, which was spreading exponentially in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the UN’s first-ever emergency health mission, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). UNMEER was mandated by the UN General Assembly in September 2014 to scale up and coordinate the activities of the UN presence on the ground working to stop the outbreak, which eventually claimed over 11,000 lives.
This report asks: Was UNMEER needed? Was it properly structured? Did it deliver? And what broader lessons can be learned from the experience of UNMEER for UN crisis response?
UNMEER’s creation responded to the need for a whole-of-system approach to fighting Ebola. The crisis outpaced the capacity of frontline responders, which were understaffed, under-trained, and under-resourced, to contain it. Available contingency measures would have provided neither the health expertise nor the operational direction required to halt the outbreak, and by September 2014, there was an urgent sense that something special was needed.
The mission’s integrated mission concept enabled it to combine the World Health Organization’s technical expertise with the operational experience of other UN agencies and the UN Secretariat. The mission underwent three distinct stages between September 2014 and July 2015. It was criticized for adopting an overly topdown management style in the initial stage, and it failed early on to engage key stakeholders, including women’s groups and affected communities. Yet the mission began to decentralize during its second stage, and its sequenced approach gave it enough flexibility to reset its leadership, management style, and operations to respond to the virus’s rapid spread.
The mission was ultimately more successful at providing operational leadership and direction— most notably in supporting the Ebola Response Strategy—than it was at directly coordinating field partners. Its ability to coordinate the scale-up of logistical capacity in the region was considered a critical multiplier for the UN response, despite serious staffing challenges that slowed the pace of deployment. Among its most important contributions was that its establishment helped to catalyze global political action, precipitating an influx of donor contributions.
The mission’s success in raising the profile of the response and focusing the efforts of UN entities to fulfill the Ebola Response Strategy provides valuable lessons on how to bridge longstanding institutional divisions, or silos, between the UN’s principal organs and between and within the Secretariat and agencies, funds, and programs. The report concludes with eight broad lessons for UN crisis response:
A sequenced approach and flexible mandate allow for better responses to unanticipated challenges.
Effective responses draw upon the full range of UN tools and implementing partners based on the principle of comparative advantage, but they must take into account the challenge of integrating distinct organizational cultures.
Flexible and predictable funding is critical for rapidly scaling up responses to multidimensional crises.
Local engagement with key stakeholders during the peak of a crisis enhances long-term effectiveness.
A system-wide communications strategy, bolstered by strong communications capacity in the field, is required from the outset.
High-level coordination and oversight can provide flexibility and quick reaction.
Close proximity to frontline responders and the site of the crisis enhances field coordination.
A regional office can improve coordination across borders, but it must be joined with a strategy to account for the specificity of national and local contexts.