Which lesson can we learn from this analysis?
Launched in 2009, Liberia’s President’s Young Professional (PYP) program seeks to encourage leadership among young civil servants by developing their problem-solving skills and supporting their creative initiatives. Such program should be seen as a particularly effective strategy to build the capacities of an administration able to face crises such as Ebola.
To fully eliminate the current outbreak and build ability to withstand the next shock, Liberia must maintain and expand its health and emergency response systems. Developing human capacity to deal with the day-to-day realities of crises is crucial, particularly among civil servants—the building blocks of any government. When individuals (whether government employees or otherwise) have the necessary skills and mind-set, the institution to which they belong is able to organize and multiply those talents to achieve much more than the sum of its parts.
One program that seeks to build this type of leadership is Liberia’s President’s Young Professional (PYP) program, which President Johnson Sirleaf launched in 2009. The PYP program recruits high-performing recent college graduates into government ministries to improve the calibre of Liberia’s civil servants. As of February 2015, the PYP program has placed 73 fellows in government roles. It is currently transitioning from a program managed by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. (JSI) to a Liberian entity structured in a public-private partnership with the Government of Liberia.
Dalberg interviewed these young civil servants to understand the government’s Ebola response through the lens of their first-hand experience. Below, the fellows describe what they saw during the Ebola crisis, how they helped, and what they recommend for the future. Their experience provides a snapshot of what it’s like to work in government during a prolonged emergency.
As important as knowledge and information-sharing are, they are even more potent when workers have the space and freedom to identify and test new solutions to problems. A critical danger of crisis response in a low-capacity environment is a too-restrictive “top-down” management approach in which everyone depends on one or two individuals to provide all of the ideas, resources, and solutions.
The PYP program gave the fellows a community that supported their ability to take initiative: peers with whom they could jointly problem solve before and during the Ebola crisis—including in their shared workspace, the PYP office—and professional mentors whose advice they could rely on. Collins elaborated that these resources drew her to the program. “The PYP offers mentors and supervisors that tutor you and expose you to the government and professional world,” she said. “One of the reasons I joined is because I thought it would strengthen my capacity.”
Individually, some fellows proactively leveraged the PYP community and training to launch local initiatives to educate the public about Ebola or ease the crisis. For example, Johnson has tried to make hand washing more convenient, as it is crucial to halting the spread of the virus. She noticed that in Liberia hand washing is “not always very feasible because we have small buckets sitting at the doors or public areas for hand washing and there are usually long lines of people waiting to wash their hands at the buckets,” making the wait time a potential deterrent.
Johnson sought to implement larger hand washing spaces, she said, “with six dispensers so you can have six people washing their hands at a time.” The U.S. Embassy sponsored her program to install multi-faucet water tanks in populous areas to reduce Ebola transmission rates, including in Monrovia’s densely populated West Point neighbourhood, which has more than 70,000 inhabitants. Zaizay explained that these grassroots solutions are critical, even if less visible: “Ebola cannot be stopped at the treatment facility level; Ebola can only be stopped at the community level.”
More broadly, however, the Ebola crisis is an opportunity for African governments to welcome innovation and creativity in problem solving for a new approach to governance. There are concrete steps that governments can take to ensure staff are consistently empowered to respond—even in overwhelming situations.
Dalberg’s assessment of the PYP program concluded that PYPs generally have stronger professional skills, greater exposure to responsibilities, and more experience in critical decision-making roles than non-PYP peers. A key reason some of the PYPs were able to succeed despite the immensity of the challenge before them is that they were recruited through a process that prioritized independent thinking and active problem solving. PYPs had opportunities to deploy these skills in their roles, as well as support mechanisms (in the form of mentorship and training) to rely on should they take a risk and then stumble.
A focus on action, commitment, and results pervades the PYP program ethos starting with recruitment. Amending recruitment and staff development policies of all public agencies to focus on problem-solving and basic management—so it becomes the rule rather than the exception—can be a great boon not just in times of crisis, but in times of strength as well.
Many of the PYPs felt ownership over their work and liberty in their roles. This allowed them to break out of standard thinking and try bold new approaches—and they were rewarded for doing so. Building a culture that fosters, rather than reprimands, communication, flexibility, and independence is vital to encouraging initiative and leadership.
A fundamental reason that PYPs were effective is because they had local contextual knowledge. They were able to be ambassadors for change because the people with whom they worked trusted them. In comparison, some of the foreign experts flown in to help support the response at the onset of the crisis appeared as unfamiliar outsiders to communities. In extreme cases this led to violence, such as the brutal attack and murder of eight Ebola aid workers in Guinea.11 Sending foreign experts is not a sustainable solution, not only because of high cost, but also because they may not know the cultural context. In the past decade, donors have renewed focus on capacity building—an encouraging shift. However, as the Ebola crisis in countries like Liberia starkly demonstrates, more can be done to equip countries to respond locally.