How many disasters do we need?

06 Oct 2014 - 13:16
Source: Flickr / UNICEF Guinea

It is said that governments are only able to change course when a disaster occurs. Without disasters governments tend to become complacent and lazy.

If there is some truth in this thesis – and just look around to see that it is the case – then the question is how many disasters it takes to make a government change course. Let us, with this question in mind, have a quick look at two threats: the threat to international cooperation and the threat of Russia. After that we will turn to the Ebola crisis.

It took the West-Europeans a lot of war to realize that giving up some sovereignty in exchange for close cooperation and integration is preferable above exercising the sovereign right to vilify people with different languages and religions and to go to war with them from time to time. The question now is how long this broad consensus will hold. Will it require another war to convince political parties that higher defence budgets and involvement in international wars (how necessary they might be) can never be a substitute for international cooperation?

The Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not make European governments fully realize that Russia was no longer willing to play the geo-political game according to the West-European rules. Even the annexation of the Crimea did not suffice. Only when Russia started intervening in Eastern Ukraine, Western governments came to realize that they could no longer pretend that nothing had changed.

Both cases illustrate how difficult it is for governments to learn from their experiences. Let us now look at the Ebola crisis. Nor the specific time, nor the specific place were predictable, but it was a foreseeable crisis in many other respects. We knew beforehand that new epidemics of infectious diseases take place from time to time, new because of a new variety of an existing disease, or new because of the place where the epidemic breaks out. We also knew that many of the least developed countries are unable to deal properly with such outbreaks, and we also knew that the World Health Organization is insufficiently prepared to deal quickly and adequately with such a crisis.

We knew that, but what did we do? As far as the Dutch government is concerned: very little. Promoting global health is very low on its agenda. The Dutch ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has as its motto “The Netherlands healthy and well”, but seems insufficiently to realise how much public health in the Netherlands depends on global health. And for the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs neither global health, nor education (key to public health), nor strengthening global cooperation in these fields are priorities. It will be interesting to see what lessons both ministries will draw from the current Ebola crisis.