Engaging Communities in Emergency Responses: Lessons from the Ebola Outbreak in Liberia

The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) has published a new report describing lessons learned from the Ebola response in West Africa: Social Mobilization Lessons Learned: The Ebola Response in Liberia.

Community Engagement and Social Mobilization Are Crucial

While no single factor can be credited for controlling the Ebola outbreak, transparency, communication and community engagement contributed substantially to changing the course of the outbreak in West Africa.

Community engagement, and social mobilization more broadly, contributed to significant behavior change – from eliminating physical contact with others and reducing in-country movement to increasing handwashing and care-seeking practices – by engaging and motivating individuals and communities to create change in their lives and environment. Social mobilization activities, such as door-to-door campaigns, radio shows and other community initiatives, were utilized to share and distribute Ministry of Health (MOH)-approved messages and materials and to help to create and support focused dialogue within communities.

For these activities to work, communities and their leaders had to be engaged in the entire process – from creation and buy-in to ownership and action. Local networks of trusted community leaders were engaged to inform and work with their communities to eliminate Ebola transmission and play positive roles in their communities. Clear, consistent, honest and culturally sensitive communication and messaging and social mobilization activities were crucial for increasing individual and community knowledge and reducing risk behaviors and stigma.

A community in Monrovia, Liberia. ©UNMEER/Christopher Bailey.

However, to develop appropriate and timely communication content and strategies and to monitor the progress of the emergency response, the MOH and partners had to gain insight into community thinking. Strategies, such as SMS-based surveys, made it possible to communicate with and learn from communities in real time, helping national-level pillars to respond quickly to information gaps, misinformation and rumors.

The primary aim of the Social Mobilization Lessons Learned report was to document the work of the Liberia’s Incident Management System’s Ebola Response Social Mobilization Pillar and key social mobilization efforts that contributed to the response in Liberia during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak.

The report is divided into three sections. The first gives an overview of the state of Liberia’s health system and relevant MOH and partner projects that helped provide a foundation for the response, changes in the structure of the response, and key social mobilization and research, monitoring, and evaluation activities from the two primary waves of the response. The second section identifies key challenges, lessons learned, and success factors from the outbreak as well as recommendations for preparedness activities moving forward. The third section contains lists of partners and activities at the national and county levels.

The report is based on key MOH and partner documents (published and unpublished), journal articles, partner blog posts, interviews with key stakeholders, data collected through MOH and partner activities, and analysis of project documents.

Download the Report



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