To date, the spread of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has sickened more than 21,000 people and claimed over 8,600 lives. According to the World Health Organization, it is the largest such epidemic ever recorded. But recently, a ray of hope emerged. United Nations Special Envoy Dr. David Nabarro said the spread of Ebola in West Africa was finally slowing down as a result of changes in burial practices and other behaviors that had previously driven the outbreak.
Although the battle is not yet over, this is wonderful news. Now we must begin to look at what happens to the affected communities after Ebola. A food crisis seems increasingly likely to follow in the wake of the epidemic, which has devastated small-scale farmers. Without investment in their long-term development, farming households - and West Africa's future food security - will remain at risk.
Even before the outbreak, the World Food Programme estimated that some 1.7 million people in the region faced food insecurity - defined as a lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. As a direct result of Ebola, it is expected that an additional 750,000 to 1.4 million people will become food-insecure by March.
In fact, Ebola has already affected the food supply. Farmers have stayed away from their fields due to illness, fears of infection and quarantines ordered by the authorities - or simply because there is no one left to tend the land. Trade has been blocked by the shutdown of market centers and borders to prevent contagion. Food systems, already fragile in the best of times, have been failing.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that disproportionate numbers of economically active women and men have been infected across West Africa. In Sierra Leone, UNDP says per capita incomes have plummeted as a result of lost income, including earnings from smallholder farming. Microfinance programmes are being undermined due to non-payment of loans by participants, including women farmers and rural entrepreneurs, who have fallen ill or suffered financial losses from Ebola. These defaults could lead to a regional credit squeeze, further compromising production by farmers who must borrow during planting season to buy seeds and other inputs.
Such dire circumstances should spur action. First, the international community must redouble its efforts to entirely stop the spread of Ebola and ensure that the immediate food crisis in West Africa does not escalate into a full-blown disaster. Then we need to support sustained, long-term development efforts in the places where smallholder farmers live and work.
More than three-quarters of the globe's poorest people live in the rural areas of developing countries. Their world has been largely invisible to Western eyes and media. These areas are vulnerable to shocks and crises precisely because they are already close to the edge, with little or nothing to fall back on. It is time for the developed, visible world to understand that unless rural communities become more resilient, we will be reduced to treating the symptoms rather than the disease of poverty.
From a global perspective, these communities play a vital role in ensuring food security. They are home to 500 million smallholder family farms that provide up to four-fifths of the food supply in the developing world. We are now seeing just how quickly disease can put that supply under threat.
Anyone who doubts this point has only to look at the trajectory of Ebola. As long as it mainly affected remote rural Africa, it received little attention. However, viruses do not respect provincial or national borders, and this one spread rapidly from rural to urban areas. With the appearance of several confirmed Ebola cases in Europe and the United States last fall, and more recently in Scotland, the whole world trembled.
But we can break the cycle of poverty, hunger and instability by investing seriously in rural development. Given the requisite tools and resources, small-scale agricultural producers and rural entrepreneurs can transform their communities into thriving places that offer decent livelihoods.
I have seen it with my own eyes, time and again, on field visits to projects financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and our many partners. Financing for roads, electricity, running water, banks, schools and health clinics can improve life immeasurably for the 3 billion people who live in rural areas. Indeed, if West Africa had a more developed level of rural services and infrastructure, it is unlikely that the Ebola epidemic would have spread, virtually unchecked, for so long.
Investing in rural men, women and children is what institutions like IFAD do every day. But there must be a significant increase in both resources and political will. Governments, development agencies, the private sector and others all have roles to play. With long-term rural investment, we can shift from a crisis-to-crisis approach by taking measures that sustainably reduce poverty, ensure food security and promote social development in vulnerable communities.
Not only is this the right thing to do, it is also in everyone's interest. Our world is global. What happens in Conakry, Freetown or Monrovia is felt in Berlin, Hong Kong, New York and beyond. We can no longer afford to treat rural people as if they were invisible. It's time to open our eyes.