Humanitarianism and Its Discontents: Ebola Response Revisited.

UoM administered thesis: Master of Philosophy

  • Authors:
  • Fernanda Falero Cusano


This study explores the links between the historical construction of Western humanitarian aid and the failure of their programmes. Evaluations of humanitarian responses identified three recurrent concerns in different emergencies that are relevant for this work. These problems refer to the lack of understanding of local contexts and cultures, the nonexistence of communication channels established with the affected communities, which thirdly translate into the inability to recognise local capacities as a starting point to develop ownership of humanitarian endeavours. The study argues that these drawbacks relate to an "unconscious ethnocentrism" that sometimes manifests as a "fully assumed sense of superiority" of Western humanitarian aid discourse and practice. Being a South American anthropologist with more than fourteen years of practice with a medical international non-governmental organisation (INGO) -Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF- provides the lived knowledge of these negative aspects and consequently, the motivation for this work. The focus of the study is at operational level, where repeatedly experiencing the misuse of resources and the incapacity to meet the needs of people (defined by the people themselves) definitely posed the question of operational change.The case study of the ongoing Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa describes the encounter of the Western biomedical humanitarian model with localised cultural models of construction and response to the epidemic. This EVD outbreak flags the limitations of the Western scientific model in two ways. First, it exposes biomedicine's incapacity to solve this health problem given the failure to produce a cure or a preventive vaccine to the disease. Secondly, the classic standard humanitarian biomedical model to respond to EVD outbreaks proves unfit and slow to adapt to meet the challenges of the current West Africa EVD epidemic. There is recognition of the key role that societal determinants and lifestyle play in infectious maladies, affecting both their dissemination and control -i.e. burial practices, health-seeking behaviour and explanatory models for the disease. Even though this element is acknowledged and addressed in policy, there is no systematic inclusion of actions and resources to address social determinants in the actual response. People affected by the disease are rarely considered agents to contain transmission.The study proposes a conceptualisation of an alternative inclusive analytical framework from where to create possible solutions to the persistent problems. Furthermore, this work aims to elevate the significance of the framework beyond the case study presented. It is the wish of this study to contribute to progressive reasoning on possible methods to analyse humanitarian emergencies and change the way humanitarians provide assistance.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2015