Communities are the real heroes – Doing social mobilisation differently: lessons and recommendations from the Ebola outbreak

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has reinvigorated the debate about the role of ‘social mobilisation’ and ‘community engagement’, not only in response to devastating disease but a range of other intractable issues affecting Africa and the rest of the developing world. But what do we mean by ‘social mobilisation’? And why are we only learning now that community leadership is important?

Sierra Leone’s communities are the true heroes of the Ebola response. Over the course of 18 months, a huge proportion of the population has made and maintained significant changes to cultural practice and norms. Norms that have been in place for hundreds of years, such as burial practice and traditional healing. The staggering scale of this behaviour change, a result of the patience, commitment, innovation and temerity of communities, has placed community-led social mobilisation at the centre of discussions on lessons from the outbreak.

But has the Ebola outbreak really changed our understanding of social mobilisation? Has this really increased understanding of the agency of communities and how this agency can be supported? Or has it reinforced that ‘community engagement’ is another tool in the development sector’s armoury, a nice add-on the real business of providing health care, food and education? The answer is probably yes to all three questions, depending on who is answering. But regardless of perspective, there are crucial lessons to be drawn on all sides that should improve the way we practice community engagement in the future.

In a recent submission to the UK Africa All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into ‘Community-led health systems and the Ebola outbreak’ and a submission with partners to the United Nations International Ebola Conference, Restless Development lessons and recommendations have been shared for the role of social mobilisation for both emergencies and development.

This blog, by Jamie Bedson of Restless Development, summarises the case for prioritising, resourcing and standardising social mobilisation.