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Paying salaries via mobile phone helps stop Ebola spreading in West Africa

UN development organisations need to be able to act quickly, innovatively and cut through the bureaucratic red tape when there is a need for it. This was the idea when Denmark in 2014 decided to support four UN development organisations with innovation funds for pilot projects - funds that quickly proved useful in connection with the sudden outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.

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Two aid workers helped into their PPEs (Personal Protection Suits) by local staff at an Ebola treatment centre.
Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures

When Ebola began rapidly spreading in West Africa in 2014, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and particularly the authorities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone suddenly faced a major and urgent challenge in ensuring that salaries were paid to health personnel deployed to fight the epidemic in the remotest rural districts. Getting monthly salaries to these personnel was difficult and dangerous, and there was an imminent danger that the critical efforts to combat the disease would fade because of it. If the personnel did not receive pay, they could not be expected to continue their efforts to help the sick and stop the disease from spreading.

An excellent idea

Shortly before the Ebola outbreak, Denmark had decided to support four UN development organisations with innovation funds for pilot projects. These funds, which essentially were intended to help innovate the UN organisations’ approach to development, were crucial in ensuring that an excellent idea for reliable payment to health workers could become reality.

The Administrator of UNDP, Helen Clark, explains “Paying them in a timely manner is crucial. That helps to sustain them and their families, and it ensures a steady inflow of personnel who can help stop this disease outbreak.” After testing a number of payment options, UNDP decided to develop a system where salaries could be paid via mobile phone. This enabled thousands of doctors, lab technicians, health workers and diggers to receive payment for the important work they were performing.

Contributes to a more efficient public sector

New payment methods were set up for virtually all the 38,000 registered workers who have been fighting the disease, guaranteeing that they received their pay on time.

In the future, the mobile platform could be used to improve the existing public sector payment systems. In this way, the Danish innovation funds may have contributed to laying the foundation for the further development of a more efficient public sector that can help reduce poverty.

The Ebola epidemic in 2014 was the biggest outbreak in the history of the disease. In February 2015, there were more than 23,000 registered cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, of whom close to 10,000 died from the disease. Denmark has contributed with a total of almost DKK 200 million to the efforts to combat Ebola. This comprises support for humanitarian efforts and support for UN and World Bank trust funds. Denmark has also provided medical personnel for the Ebola response efforts in West Africa. The Danish Armed Forces have the overall organisational and leadership responsibility for the Danish health personnel, who have contributed to containing the epidemic in the Port Loko district in northern Sierra Leone, where new cases can quickly be isolated and treated. The Danish health personnel have also provided intensive training and education of local health workers, who will make up the bulk of the staff at the Ebola treatment centres in the future.