Despite the availability of an experimental vaccine and the recent experience of a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is failing to address what is now the world’s second-largest outbreak of the disease. As of writing, more than 1,600 deaths have been recorded and cases have emerged outside the country. One of the critical impediments to stopping Ebola is the attacks on health workers and facilities—as well as protests of aid operations. “The biggest problem has been security,” in the words of the World Health Organization’s head of day-to-day response. “Every time there was an incident, we would be prevented from working for three to four days…we became the target.”
Community views of aid groups create an atmosphere conducive to this targeting, and while the DRC is unique, examining problematic perceptions in this case can help firms better manage the risk of local pushback when operating or expanding abroad. The crisis serves as a guide to the kinds of issues at stake for locals when an outside organization arrives at their doorstep:
Foreign origins – locals may have reasons to mistrust an organization due to its country of origin—their perceptions based on long held geopolitical views or experience with the country’s government or enterprises. In some cases, locals might be wary of all outsiders and actions by any organizations seen as “foreign” will receive additional scrutiny. This is the situation in the eastern DRC, where a history of external intervention and exploitation has fostered a high baseline level of suspicion to take root and create a challenging environment for aid groups.
- Political affiliations – affiliation or partnership with a host government or authorities can likewise land an organization in hot water, especially if a community has existing qualms about political developments. In the eastern DRC, the national government has long been seen as ineffective (at best) or abusive (at worst), so when voting for a new president was suspended in two major Eastern cities due to the outbreak, dots were connected and the public health measures were made out to be politically motivated. Naturally, certain political figures were keen to encourage this association in the minds of their constituents.
- Economic disruption – sometimes, foreign opportunity for an enterprise may mean disruption for locals. Though winners can benefit from jobs or an expanded market for their services, losers could face competition or sudden irrelevance. When livelihoods are lost, security risk follows. In the DRC, aid funding has not only favored medical professionals over traditional healers but has also supported the hiring of thousands of response workers. This, in turn, has potentially disturbed entrenched networks and the illicit economy of the region.
- Culture clashes – negative views may also stem from cultural disruption if the way a company operates or what it produces clash with local practices and beliefs. Health organizations in the DRC have enacted highly controlled burials of Ebola victims due to the dangers of infected corpses. This set them up for conflict with families of victims wishing to provide traditional burials. Unsurprisingly, burial teams have been pelted by rocks in recent months.
Public health response in the DRC is crippled further by militia attacks and security conflicts that have displaced thousands. The sooner aid organizations and their allies can untangle the web of obstacles, the sooner this latest Ebola outbreak can transition from crisis to lesson.
In the meantime, firms operating in unfamiliar environments should take note of how their own associations and actions are viewed locally and the range of effects perceptions may have on their operations. At the forefront of disrupting local taxi trades globally, Uber has regularly seen security ramifications across their markets. Other companies have faced security risk at times when political sentiment is especially heated – think Japanese businesses in China during the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute protests. It is well within the remit of a security team and its intelligence analysts to review local perceptions and mistrust, even if the impact may not be equally dire or strictly within the security realm. During a crisis, proactive analysis may determine that a company needs to jump. In the long-term, it can help evaluate how high or in which direction.