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Slow Learners Confront a Swift Disease:
The Brisbane G20's Response to Ebola

Julia Kulik, Senior Researcher, G20 Research Group
November 16, 2014

For the first time since its inception at Washington in 2008, the G20 summit issued a separate statement addressing the threat and impact of a major health issue. The "G20 Leaders' Brisbane Statement on Ebola" acknowledged the devastation that Ebola has brought to the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The leaders praised the ongoing efforts of international organizations (IOs) to treat those suffering from the disease and prevent its further spread. And they also promised to build the capacity needed to prevent other infectious diseases from reaching the similar catastrophic levels.

The G20 should be applauded for recognizing that infectious disease and the weakening of health systems have short-, medium- and long-term economic impacts, particularly with the desire of host Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other members to limit this year's G20 agenda strictly to economic issues.

However, the statement on Ebola does little good beyond expanding the scope of the G20's deliberative capacity. Realistically, what does it do for the people currently suffering from the disease and for those in immediate danger of contracting it? In what way has this statement changed the global response to a disease that requires immediate assistance?

The first positive step the G20 took was to recommit to fully implementing the World Health Organization's International Health Regulations (IHRs) on reporting disease outbreaks and supporting global disease surveillance, an essential element to preventing the severity of disease outbreaks as in West Africa. It also committed to supporting others in their implementation of the IHRs but fails to specifically outline what form that support will take. Second, the G20 leaders commit to reporting progress on their commitments by May 2015 at the World Health Assembly, which requires them to be accountable in six months' time. Third, it invited other countries to join them in mobilizing resources to encourage global health and strong, sustainable and balanced growth, emphasizing the connection between healthy people and healthy economies.

The G20 fails to take any ownership of the actual commitments being made in the statement. Instead the leaders commend the work already being done by the United Nations but do not indicate any understanding that the situation requires new more robust action. G20 members committed to do "what is necessary" to end the outbreak but either avoided outlining any specific goals or targets to be accountable for or did not use any of the many international organizations, non-governmental organizations and think tanks, many of which have representatives currently in Brisbane, and have consistently outlined the extent of the crisis and what the appropriate response should be. Furthermore, they ignored the call from Jim Kim, president of the World Bank Group, for the $2 billion he says is needed to address the crisis adequately and they told the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to find a way to make it work with the $300 million recently pledged by the IMF. Lastly, the G20 failed to do what it was designed to do at its start, which is to reach consensus. Toward the end of the statement, the G20 leaders state: "interested members are supporting this goal through initiatives to accelerate action across the Economic Community of West African States," indicating that some members are less committed than others.

G20 leaders took an important step on Saturday by releasing a statement on the Ebola crisis as their first official document and recognizing that infectious diseases have severe economic consequences. Although this connection has been widely understood and acknowledged by many others, the G20 has committed to expanding beyond its economic agenda at a time when there is pressure to keep it contained. However, this statement provides no tangible support for those currently suffering in West Africa. Thus, it should not be considered much more than a statement of understanding and general support.

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