IDS-led team wins first prize for social science response to Ebola

23 June 2016

The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) and the related Ebola: lessons for development initiatives led by Professor Melissa Leach at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) have won the prestigious Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Outstanding International Impact Prize for their rapid and effective response during the epidemic.

In awarding the prize to Professor Leach and team, the judging panel stated, ‘it’s clear that the ERAP team had a direct impact on lessening the amount of deaths and spread of Ebola by ensuring that learning from years of research in the area was highlighted to the right people in the right organisations’.

Professor Leach said: “We are honoured to win this esteemed prize. ERAP and the related Ebola: lessons for development initiatives were collaborations bringing together key partnerships and decades of research supported and funded by many ESRC projects including the ESRC STEPS Centre. We are grateful for the support of the ESRC in enabling the long-term social science research so critical to understanding the contexts and drivers of global challenges, and that underpins our ability to mobilise in real-time when crises hit”.

Bringing decades of knowledge onto one platform 

As the Ebola crisis took hold in 2014 ERAP was up-and-running as a website in October 2014, published all its materials open access, and translated and publicised 70+ other key anthropological works. Providing a focal point for dialogue as the epidemic unfolded, the website energised US, European and West African networks, being accessed by 16,000+ users. Platform members delivered pre-departure training for 362 clinical personnel; co-designed and delivering teaching content for a MOOC on Ebola in Context; and conducted training sessions on ‘Outbreak Anthropology for Epidemiologists’ in London and Berlin. 

The team led by Melissa Leach, included Annie Wilkinson (IDS), James Fairhead (University of Sussex), Ann Kelly (University of Exeter), Paul Richards (Njala University), Melissa Parker (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Fred Martineau (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine).

A collaborative effort that led to a quick and broad response

The team organised a second initiative - Ebola: Lessons for Development - part-funded by ESRC STEPS Centre) that explored broader implications of the crisis. This drew the applicants together with 10 other IDS and Sussex-based researchers, West African partners and IDS communications professionals to produce 9 ‘IDS Practice Paper’ briefings, launching and debating these with 100+ development policymakers, humanitarian agencies and researchers in London on 25 February 2015.

Communications, social media, blogs and podcasts were supported by IDS, linking with formal media channels (including interviews/contributions to BBC Science in Action, BBC News Channel, The Guardian, Washington Post, Canadian Public Service broadcast). These initiatives also gave shape to UK and international strategy and on-the-ground action in West Africa. As a social science Sub Committee of SAGE, they advised the government Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist.

Show the 'real value' anthropology 

Professor James Fairhead, from the University of Sussex, and part of the team said: “As the Ebola epidemic was as much an epidemic of mistrust as of a virus, the part we played was to help humanitarian agencies understand political tensions and local customs, rebuild trust and enable more respectful engagement with affected communities. It highlighted the very real value of anthropology to government policy and might provide a model for future epidemic responses."

In a field dominated by medics and virologists and other natural scientists, IDS and partners truly showed how valuable a collaborative and social science perspective can be.