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Africa

Opinion: White helmets to the rescue?

During a visit to Liberia, German ministers promoted the idea of a "white helmet” team to mitigate humanitarian crises. According to DW's Jan-Philipp Scholz, this may seem like a good idea until one takes a closer look.

The international community has failed to effectively combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. At this point in time hardly anybody would contest this basic analysis. Even when the devastating impact of the epidemic on Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea was becoming clear last year, international relief efforts were initiated too slowly and hesitantly. The panic was then all the greater when the first Ebola cases reached Europe and the US. All of a sudden the disease did not only pose a risk to "conflict-countries," which were only known, if at all, from media reports on civil wars, blood diamonds and crazy dictators. Suddenly the entire world seemed to be on the brink of disaster.

Pedantic criticism

The international community then reacted. New isolation centers for Ebola patients were built. Vaccines that normally take years to be developed were tested in a rush, with promising results. The efforts soon began to show success: the number of new Ebola cases steadily decreased, although the epidemic has not yet been completely halted. At the same time an assessment of the disaster and its consequences began. The German government drew up a clever six-point plan in order to be better prepared for future emergencies. It was announced that additional funds would be made available to strengthen health systems in countries at risk. More importantly, a team of medical personnel would be set up, which could respond quickly to an emergency.

Jan Philipp Scholz

DW correspondent Jan-Philipp Scholz

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave further details of the plan during a visit to West Africa in the fall of 2014. A squad of 'white helmets' was to be established, including doctors who could be deployed to crisis areas quickly. However, some humanitarian organizations have criticized the name. Doesn't 'white helmets' sound very similar to 'blue helmets?' Might humanitarian fieldworkers not confuse them with UN military personnel? This is academic, trivial and superfluous criticism. In the midst of an emergency, sick people will not care what their rescuers are called or what color helmet they might be wearing!

The argument that it is obviously necessary to strengthen local health systems also falls short. One thing should not come without the other. And even functioning health systems can reach their limits when faced with an epidemic like Ebola. The mistakes made in dealing with cases in Spain and the US are a perfect example. Hence, the white helmet initiative should be welcomed – and its striking name is positive rather than a hindrance. But how much progress has been made over the last six months towards implementing the plan?

Short-lived lessons

German Health Minister Hermann Gröhe and his colleague Gerd Müller of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development gave an answer, albeit indirectly, during their visit to Ghana and Liberia. Their “news” was that a troop of white helmets was to be set up. Medical experts should be ready to be deployed in conflict areas within only a few days. If need be, Germany would go ahead with its plan single-handedly. In other words, implementation of the plan has made hardly any progress within the last six months, either in Europe or internationally.

It is a familiar mechanism: the international community is devastated by its own failure. Some lessons are learnt and clever ideas are developed. But with the same speed that a topic changes from headline news to marginal note, it also dropped to the bottom of the agendas of ministerial meetings. There are always new crises appearing on the radar, such as the conflict in Ukraine, international terrorist threats or air travel safety.

Lessons learnt from humanitarian crises generally have a short lifetime. The implementation of good ideas is not easy during ordinary daily business. Hence, one does not have to be a pessimist to imagine the next post-humanitarian crisis scenario, in which a minister visiting a country hit by disease presents a good idea, such as the formation of a white-helmet medical corps ready to be deployed on short notice.

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