AFTERSHOCK: AID, EBOLA, AND CIVIL SOCIETY IN West Africa

In Aftershock: Aid, Ebola and Civil Society in West Africa, I take the example of the Ebola epidemic to explore a major paradox in terms of how international NGOs work with local organizations in developing countries through the example of the West Africa Ebola response. Despite significant international aid to local and national organizations as part of peacebuilding and development policy, during international crisis they receive, little, if any funding and are often excluded from the international response. I draw on neo-institutional approaches to explain the circulation of ideas and practices in organizations, to contribute to social capital theory in developing country contexts. Have international investments in civil society development generated the necessary social capital to respond to crisis? To answer this question, I examine the presence and density of nonprofits as indicative of civic capacity across four field sites (capital cities and large towns in the interior) in Sierra Leone and Guinea, two countries with a prior experience of conflict sharing a border. Aftershock illustrates that the organizations that best mobilize populations, such as large, membership-based women’s and youth organizations, oftentimes cannot meet the growing standards of metrics and evaluation by donors – defined here as organizational professionalism. Therefore, professionalism reduces a community’s capacity to form diverse nonprofits, jeopardizing resilience against future crises. These findings have implications for not only civic engagement during a humanitarian crisis, but also in democratization and development processes, as smaller organizations are the building blocks of larger institutions, particularly in contexts of weak state capacity. 

The evidence for these conclusions comes from a mixed methods approach, drawing on original data from an under-researched part of the world, as well as secondary data sources. First, I conducted 100 interviews with local and national organizations across four field sites in Sierra Leone and Guinea. I traced the emergence and evolution of these organizations from the regional civil wars (1989-2003) through peacebuilding and democratization (overall period: 1989-2018), particularly as the formation of civil society organizations was a cornerstone of the liberal peacebuilding project. My first-round interviews revealed two external pressures on civil society organizations: professionalization and politicization. I triangulated these interviews with interviews with international organizations, NGO umbrella groups, and government representative as well. Second, I used automated text analysis of international humanitarian organization strategy reports since 2000, comparing mentions of terms related to evaluation and metrics with local, participatory, and rights-based approaches. Third, returning to my interview data, I created quantifiable measures of professionalism and politicization adapted to my context, and coded interviews to create a model examining to what extent professionalism and politicization determine whether an organization received a contract with an international NGO during the 2013-2016 Ebola Crisis. Fourth, I created a dataset merging variables related to pre-Ebola social capital through Afrobarometer cross-national surveys, with World Health Organization (WHO) Ebola mortality rates. In the final chapter, I will reflect on the Ebola crisis and its relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic, in West Africa and even in the developed world. I will conclude by discussing implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the localization of aid in West Africa, as well as discuss how the global pandemic is accelerating an authoritarian wave in the sub-region.