The Mistake Of Fighting Ebola Like A War

The US government’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa has relied primarily on the Pentagon, whose resources and logistical capabilities would seem to make it a good choice to lead such an operation. Alex de Waal, however, argues that military-run relief projects are less efficient and more costly than civilian efforts led by humanitarian professionals:

When Air Force planes carry out airdrops of emergency relief, they are invariably much more expensive and less effective than their humanitarian counterparts. Army engineers have the equipment to construct flood defenses or temporary accommodation for people displaced by fire or water, but there is invariably much wastage and learning on the job (by definition, too late). Experienced relief professionals can list many of the downsides of bringing in the military:

they utilize vast amounts of oversized equipment, clogging up scarce airport facilities, docks and roads; their heavy machinery damages local infrastructure; they use more equipment and personnel in building their own bases and protecting themselves than in doing the job; their militarized attitudes offend local sensibilities and generate resentment; and they override the decision-making of people who actually know what they are doing.

In the days after the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, the U.S. Army was efficient at clearing debris, setting up an air traffic control system, and getting Haiti’s ports and airport functional. One third of the emergency spending in Haiti was costs incurred by the military. (The costing includes only additional or marginal costs for the deployment.) When the army moved into other relief activities, such as general health and relief programs, even those marginal costs were disproportionately high. Trained for battlefield injuries, army surgeons weren’t skilled at treating the crush injuries common in an earthquake zone. In West Africa today, militaries are providing an important air bridge, given that commercial airlines have stopped flying. But the United Nations could do the job more cheaply and efficiently—if it had the resources.