Prepare for post-Ebola recovery in Africa

The World Bank and IMF lead the way in helping African nations hit by Ebola to plan for an inevitable rebound. Such planning may help dispel current perceptions of Ebola as yet another drag on Africa that has grown more resilient.

Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma (top L) and Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (top R) appear via video at an Oct. 9 IMF-World Bank meeting about the Ebola crisis.

From the World Bank’s bird’s-eye view of Africa, it is not too early to start planning for an economic rebound from the Ebola crisis. Why now? Because as the bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, said Thursday, most of the adverse effect on West Africa comes from “the fear factor that surrounds the outbreak.”

The immediate task, of course, is to increase health-care assistance for the most-affected countries: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. But a second task is to battle false perceptions of the Ebola virus that have caused undue “aversion behavior,” such as a flight of investment and disruption to businesses, schools, and transport. The sooner perceptions give way to realistic assessments, the less money will be needed in the long term to revive the hardest-hit economies.

Post-Ebola, these countries will find that an economic recovery is inevitable, as was learned in Asia after the 2002-04 SARS crisis. Africa’s own ability to get on top of HIV/AIDS also points to the wisdom of planning now. For starters, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have together pledged more than $530 million for the three countries in an emergency response.

Some context will help. The Ebola crisis is a big problem in only three of Africa’s 54 countries (45 are in sub-Saharan Africa). Most of West Africa’s 19 countries are doing well in containing it. And before the crisis, Liberia and Sierra Leone had strong economic growth; they were in the top 10 of countries with the highest growth. 

For all Africa’s many crises -- terrorist attacks, droughts, civil wars -- it has had two decades of progress in fundamentals, giving many of the countries a stronger resiliency to shocks. Violence is down, markets have been opened, democracy is expanding, and a new generation of leaders (“cheetahs”) are creating a new dynamic for a young population armed with cellphones and hope.

“Gone are the traditional pessimism about the continent’s growth prospects and the references to basket-case economies,” said economist Dani Rodrik of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., in a speech last April.

Still, Africa has many cliffs to climb. In Liberia, more than half the people live at or near the poverty line. The continent has 15 percent of the world’s population but only 3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Ebola will likely not slow Africa’s progress by much -- unless the world clings to the wrong perceptions about this outbreak. One way to correct those perceptions: Start planning for the Ebola-hit nations to rally back.

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