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Former ambassador discusses role of diplomacy in Ebola crisis

Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, the assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services addressed the Ebola epidemic and international diplomacy implications at a talk on Wednesday, emphasizing the importance of health diplomacy and civilian mobilization in combating the outbreak.

He started by outlining the timeline of the spread of Ebola in terms of the number of cases in Central and West Africa, explaining that progress has been made in Nigeria and there is hope that the situation in Guinea will be under control in a couple of weeks as well.

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In Sierra Leone, however, the situation is out of control, Kolker said.

Kolker said that, in his role as a diplomat and administrator, he has sat through a lot of meetings to find out how the U.S. government can best help.

“We’re confident this is going to improve, but there’s no reason to say we can let our guard down,” he said.

Ebola is a highly infectious disease with symptoms that include fever and internal bleeding, and often leads to death.

He explained that the battle against Ebola is a matter of science, ethics, economics and politics all rolled into one. In terms of providing international aid, he noted that challenges have included finding the optimal way, on the civilian side, to respond and leveraging the government’s capacity to help.

“There was very good intention X on everyone’s part, but the number of people you have to go through to get the right people to ask the right questions to mobilize aid is very complicated,” Kolker said.

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This is where health diplomacy becomes an important part of the equation and why a large part of his job includes finding a way to put priorities on someone else’s agenda, he noted.

“You need to put the biology with the politics to really understand,” he said.

Kolker added that nevertheless the focus remains on public health as a large public good, and that the first response needs to be in the health system.

The Ebola epidemic presents challenges in terms of trying to combat the issue from an international aid perspective.

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“In Africa, there’s an unrealistic affection for America and what America represents, but the I’m-going-to-solve-your-problems approach is a bad way to approach Africa,” Kolker said. “The better question is, ‘How can you add value to the problem-solving efforts that are already being made based on your background and education?’”

Kolker concluded his talk by urging undergraduates in the audience to consider international health policy and health diplomacy as career fields.

“My career has convinced me that one person can make a difference,” Kolker said. “I hope you’re that person.”

The lecture was held at noon on Wednesday in 216 Aaron Burr Hall. It was hosted by the Program in African Studies, which is part of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

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