Africa’s local knowledge can help address global crises. Here is how 

Africa’s response to crises holds important lessons for meeting major challenges that lie ahead.

When I returned home to Mali in 2019 after two decades working across Africa and the rest of the world, I found it difficult to recognize the place. The optimism spurred by the country’s development in the 1990s had given way to despondency – and insecurity and climate change were largely to blame.

In Mali, climate change is not only a future threat; it affects Malians’ lives and livelihoods today. It has reversed social progress that was achieved with much effort and limited means. And it has fractured the rural economy, triggering a chain of calamitous developments, including civil strife, food insecurity, and an improvised exodus. If left unaddressed, conditions are unlikely to improve soon.

Africa has certainly had its share of overwhelming crises, from economic downturns and political upheavals to natural disasters and epidemics. The continent’s response to these crises holds important lessons for meeting the major challenges that lie ahead. Above all, it is vital for policymakers to listen to the perspectives and understand the interests and goals of local communities.

For example, when Mali rolled out primary health care in the 2000s, local communities pushed the authorities to address the silent epidemic of maternal mortality. Those discussions ensured that policymakers gave emergency maternal care due attention.

When the West African Ebola outbreak in 2013 sparked global panic, the world’s leading health experts responded with dedication, skill, and state-of-the-art technology. But one less heralded yet vital intervention, spearheaded by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was the organization of safe burials for Ebola victims.

While this effort was primarily intended to provide dignity for the affected communities, it also made medical sense in terms of controlling the epidemic. We now know that the intervention was not only important for maintaining the population’s trust and collaboration in the fight against Ebola, but also played a key role in limiting the disease’s spread. Safe burials saved thousands of lives and reduced the scale of the epidemic by up to 36.5%. They were efficient and effective, and addressed an issue that communities considered vital.

The misunderstandings and resistance regarding the measures put in place to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic remind me of the behavior we saw during the Ebola crisis. There is panic, denial, and a lack of trust and commitment. Some citizens accuse their government of using the disease as a means of controlling the population.

Unfortunately, similar sentiments are hampering efforts to combat climate change. The resulting inertia means that we are missing opportunities to forestall environmental disaster and galvanize communities behind strategies to strengthen their resilience.

To tackle climate change effectively, and to address the global public-health challenges, we should recognize communities as prime agents and stakeholders, instead of viewing them as the objects of policy interventions by well-meaning experts. Innovative and sufficiently funded technical and social investments are necessary, but not sufficient.

But community mobilization also is not enough. The effectiveness of the response to global warming will reflect our ability to leverage strategic information, which mobilizes decision-makers by showing that concrete responses are feasible, and that not investing will ultimately be far more costly. There is a broad consensus about the importance of understanding the technical, technological, and social dimensions of managing the challenge of climate change – not just at the global level, but also in specific national environments. Now we must go beyond these diagnoses and commitments to address local vulnerabilities and opportunities.

This is where the gap in the human geography of political decision-making is greatest, because policymakers all too often treat mobilizing the creativity of local communities as an afterthought – if they think of it at all. Governments and development partners must develop more robust institutions for discussing with communities what can and should be done, and for ensuring that their views are taken into account when devising and implementing policy.

Like the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the world’s two-year struggle against COVID-19 has shown how critical the knowledge and participation of local communities can be in addressing global threats. In Africa and elsewhere, we need to capitalize on this resource if we are to have a fighting chance of mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. – Project Syndicate

Fatoumata Nafo, Chair of the Board of the Foundation for Health and Environment in Mali, is a former executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and a former regional director of Africa at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.