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February 9, 2016

Responding To: The Global Future of Security

Learning From Ebola: Local Problems, Global Effects

Celeste Carano

In early 2014, I wrote an email reassuring friends and family that while there were reports of Ebola in southern Guinea, I was far away in Monrovia and there was no real threat to my health, or anyone else’s, in Liberia.

Nine months later, the Ebola epidemic peaked across West Africa and cases appeared in the U.S. My gauge of the potential danger could not have been more wrong, but I was hardly the only one to have underestimated its potential impact. The CDC, WHO, and Ministries of Health in countries across West Africa had done the same. How had so much of the world missed the early warning signs?

As an undergraduate studying conflict and security, I’d never thought much about the threat of emerging epidemic disease, nor other global health risks. Neither topic appeared in any of my degree-bearing courses, nor did tiny, poor countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone factor into my classroom conversations. Instead, my coursework focused on more traditional topics centered on the protection of the nation state and global order:- the rise of China, instability in the Middle East, and threat of nuclear proliferation.

I don’t tell this story to say that global health should be the highest priority security issue of the next century. It will doubtlessly continue to be important, but so too will those aforementioned topics. What will hopefully shift, however, are any tendencies by academics or policymakers to discount the potential impact at home of environmental, health, or civil challenges in countries that, whether due to size, poverty, or lack of influence, rarely loom large on the traditional security agenda. We know that small, localized problems like emerging diseases, rising sea levels, and crime have the potential to destabilize governments, or entire regions, spur waves of refugees, and disrupt trade. Will we, whether as a country, or a global community, be ready to manage them?

The only certainty for that next generation of cross-cutting security professionals is that there will be some threat, at some point in the future, that we haven’t anticipated. Responding to the world’s future security challenges will – and already does – involve greater degrees of coordination, and a more fluid strategy led by multiple actors with a holistic approach. Closing the coordination gap between the humanitarian, defense, and development sectors, for both bureaucrats, field workers, and policy makers, will be an ongoing challenge. I hope that as new cohorts of students begin to study security, and enter their careers, they’re taught not only to value and assess those potential threats, but also that the assessment of security risks can’t stop at the border, and that collaboration to counter threats can’t be a siloed exercise.

Celeste Carano is a M.A. Candidate in the Global Human Development program at Georgetown University. 

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