Dynamics of Emergencies:
Co-Producing Crisis in Guinea and Sierra Leone

Conceptual Aim

Past messages of hope: Derelict Ebola information in Kambia (Sierra Leone), March 2016


This project investigates the intricacies of the unfolding and ending of crisis and their repercussions on concepts of normality and exception. In order to explore how crisis and normality are co-produced between local, national, and international dynamics and how past experiences with outside interventions influence these categories and practices today, the project is guided by the following hypotheses:

  • crisis is co-produced by different actors, including those who are affected and those who are intervening: crisis and intervention to crisis forms one complex;
  • past experiences with emergencies and outside intervention impact on the reception and definition of exceptional and normal situations;
  • crises of different natures are experienced similarly when its sources and coping strategies are perceived as transferable, which includes activating specific social networks as well as overt and hidden resistance or cooperation with the powers at hand.

Here, the term intervention summarises all forms of processes, changes, and actions initiated or executed by outside sources of ideas, materials, or funding – ranging from humanitarian aid,  structural governance, and economic reform to direct military deployments – and from local perspectives, the nation-state can be the source of such intervention as well.

Ebola in West Africa: From exception to crisis?

Presidential lessons for post-crisis behaviour - like 15 years before, in Freetown (Sierra Leone), March 2016

When the normality of everyday life suddenly shifts and this is experienced as ‘a serious threat to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a social system’ (Rosenthal et al. 1989: 10), people conceive of, define, and react to crisis – but they do not do so in an isolated fashion (Calhoun 2010). Local populations, state actors, and international institutions define and react to such an exceptional or new situation – effectively co-producing crisis.    

During the 2014-2016 West African outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and its predominantly public health-guided management, local governments acted with very different speeds and priorities than some of the international organisations. Foreign assistance was not always well received by local populations. Governments – sometimes forcibly – coerced the so-called non-compliant persons and communities to follow new epidemiological measures, shifting the concept and practice of medical citizenship and bio-power in these countries. This project will contribute to the understanding of such local dynamics and that of the legacies of past crises and interventions that these actors are drawing on.

Collective experiences of a crisis re-order people’s worlds, producing new relationships between them and changing institutions such as family, society, and state. Roitman argues that ‘crisis marks history and generates history’ (2013: 20), resulting in the production of diverse chronologies of events. These kinds of critical events are used as analogies in future crises. That people’s chronologies differ from official historiographies is only addressed by few studies (Fassin 2007; Bevernage 2011). In the making and current unmaking of the Ebola-crisis in West Africa, different actors’ timelines of events, definitions of exception, crisis, and normalcy will be re-constructed as well as the social ties and cross-generational relations these effect and engender.

Comparisons: Guinea and Sierra Leone

Commercialisation of Ebola activism in Freetown (Sierra Leone), March 2016

This comparative project will investigate two interrelated questions: what historical, political, and social factors have impacted the way that a crisis, such as the one caused by the Ebola outbreak, develops in different countries and what enduring changes such experiences provoke: in the relationship within society, between different population groups and towards the state and international actors. As states and national societies, Sierra Leone and Guinea have different histories, especially of international interventions in the last decades. Comparisons between these two will enable insights into the way past crisis and intervention experiences shape the definition and engagement with recent and contemporary exceptions and crises.

Key categories will be brought to light by comparisons between different locations and communities within and between the two countries: 1) different narratives on crises: exploring definitions of crisis for different actors and at different times; 2) key memories, pivotal events and recurrent patterns of interactions between society, state, and foreign intervention during crises; 3) local populations’ coping strategies with the crisis-intervention-complex; 4) the effects of crisis and intervention on social relations, especially potential shifts in gender and intergenerational relations.

References

Bevernage, B. 2011. History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence. New York: Routledge.
Calhoun, C. 2010. The Idea of Emergency. In: Contemporary States of Emergency. D. Fassin & M. Pandolfi (eds.), pp: 29-58. New York: Zone Books.
Fassin, D. 2007. Humanitarism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture 19/3: 499-520.
Murphy, W. P. & C. H. Bledsoe. 1987. Kinship and Territory in the History of a Kpelle Chiefdom (Liberia). In: The African Frontier. I. Kopytoff (ed.), pp: 121-147. Indiana: Indiana UP.
Roitman, J. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke UP.
Rosenthal, U., ‘t Hart, P. & Charles M. 1989. Coping With Crises: The Management of Disasters, Riots, and    Terrorism. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Vigh, H. 2008. Crisis and Chronicity. Ethnos 73/1: 5-24.

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