Securitisation and Policymaking: Lessons from Sierra Leone

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, International development, Security and defence

Dr Luisa Enria is Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath's Department of Social & Policy Sciences. This post draws, in part, on her current research project States of Emergency: Citizenship in Times of Crisis in Sierra Leone.

Why should Western governments commit parts of their budget to foreign aid spending? This is a question that over the years has gained significant political salience. In the UK, the government’s international development budget is under increasing scrutiny, with members of the media and pressure groups expressing concern about the accountability of spending and, more fundamentally, the rationale for sending taxpayers’ money abroad. One way to address these issues has been by appealing to notions of security and the national interest. In its 2016 Building Stability Framework, for example, DFID commits to redirecting 50% of the aid budget to “fragile contexts”, focusing on the role of aid in building strong economies and legitimate institutions in order to ensure global security. Volatile situations in places such as Somalia or Yemen, the argument goes, pose threats not only to those countries’ populations, but to taxpayers in Western countries, in the form of refugee flows, the spread of disease and the potential for terrorism. “The UK cannot sit back and wait for international problems to arrive on our shores”, the Framework states, so foreign aid become a necessary tool for ensuring national security. There are good reasons why a reframing of development priorities in terms of national and global security is expedient. Appeals to security heighten the urgency of intervention, and justify resource mobilisation in policy environments where security commands the highest priority and largest budgets. These arguments have been further strengthened by a growing (though not uncontested) evidence base on the interlinkages between underdevelopment and instability, allowing policymakers to draw causal links from poverty to conflict and migration. However, this “securitisation” of development has significant, and in some cases counterproductive, consequences for those at the receiving end of these policy framings.

The example of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, a country that has experienced several bouts of crisis and whose development trajectory has long been securitised, offers important insights into the practical implications of justifying foreign aid through appeals to security concerns. During and after the epidemic, I worked with affected communities in Freetown and in the North of Sierra Leone, collecting stories of the outbreak and how the measures put in place to bring it under control shaped how citizens’ relationship to their institutions. Understanding Ebola in the context of a broader securitisation development in the country sheds light on some of the ways in which global policy trends influence the lives of citizens in developing countries.

Sierra Leone’s ten year civil war has been interpreted as a text-book “conflict-trap”, with decades of underdevelopment and autocratic rule resulting in marginalised and disaffected youth taking up arms to join the brutal Revolutionary United Front. Whilst the reality of the war was more complex, this reading had significant traction and the post-war reconstruction era was a testing ground for new peacebuilding experiments that emphasised the role of development for maintaining peace, both at home and across the borders that Sierra Leonean refugees crossed during the conflict. In 2014, twelve years after the end of the war, the country made international news once again as one of the places worst affected by an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). After an initially sluggish response, as thousands were dying across the Mano River Union (Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone), the WHO declared Ebola a public health emergency of international concern in August 2014 followed by a UN declaration in September that the outbreak was a “threat to international peace and security”. In Sierra Leone, state of emergency regulations were put in place, including the imposition of quarantines, restrictions on freedom of movement, and later fines and jail terms for violating response regulations such as the ban on “traditional” or “unsafe” burials. National and international (British, in the Sierra Leonean case) militaries were brought in to lead on logistics and support the implementation of state of emergency regulations. Fears that the disease would cross borders and reach European shores, or even be used as a bioterrorism weapon, heightened the urgency of the situation. The epidemic, in other words, was securitised.

As response workers worked around the clock to end transmission chains, reports from hotspots emphasised the role of traditional practices, such as healing and burial rituals, in the spread of the disease. Initially identified as barriers, communities later became central to the response as engagement efforts developed participatory approaches to encourage behavioral change. Alongside these efforts, security approaches and punitive measures were strengthened, especially towards the end, as community engagement seemed insufficient to bend the epidemiological curve. Despite disagreements on causes and courses of action, lack of trust in government and international partners was identified as a key barrier across the spectrum of the response, including amongst social scientists involved in supporting interventions through grounded research.

There is little doubt that the escalation of Ebola to the level of international crisis, and its appearance on the agenda of the Security Council as a “threat to international peace and security”, helped achieve greater visibility. Funding pledges shot up in the Autumn of 2014, following the declarations. Western doctors becoming ill and instances of sick West Africans arriving at American airports added pressure. At national level, appeals to security, combined with arguments about the military’s superior logistical capacity, made it possible to put in place state of emergency regulations that were deemed necessary to curb the disease, when slow trust-building and engagement exercises were deemed to be taking too long. So securitisation made sense at policy level, both nationally and internationally, and in many ways was effective in achieving the goals of mobilising funds and spurring intervention. But what does securitisation mean for those affected by the disease and the restrictions put in place to control it?

Some of the implications of the containment measures are obvious if we consider the significant impact on the everyday lives of Sierra Leoneans of military checkpoints and curfews, such as during Operation Northern Push in the last two districts recording cases, or the incarceration of those found burying their dead in secret. These may be seen as necessary evils; however, there are arguably more concerning and longer-term effects of the securitisation approach in terms of what it does to the social contract and to the basis of trust deemed so necessary to ending the outbreak.

Defining a problem, whether it is unemployment, poverty or an epidemic as a security problem has implications both for the kinds of interventions that are made possible, but also for the relationship between citizens and their institutions. Sierra Leoneans are used to this and their experiences ought to serve as warnings to policymakers eager to embrace the security trend. After the war, unemployed youth used their designation as “threats” to post-war stability to challenge the government’s development agenda. In the absence of meaningful political voice, young people leveraged the language of security and used violence as a chip to bargain for a place at the table. Similarly, during Ebola, the framing of care practices and those at risk of contracting the disease as security concerns, with its associated measures, reframed the relationship between government and citizens in ways that were counterintuitive if the aim was to re-establish trust. In establishing security measures to go alongside community engagement, presenting certain sections of the populations who were either unable or unwilling to comply with disease control regulations as security risks, such approaches create a distinction between “good” and “bad” citizens: those who comply of their own accord and those who require containment. This is not specific to Ebola—in securitising development we are always implicitly making a statement of who or what poses a threat.

However, if it is expedient at policy level in the current climate to securitise development, but counterproductive in terms of the social contract between citizens and governments, where does that leave us? Whilst this will require restructuring in global policy-making, the Ebola outbreak can offer some practical suggestions. The first is that even when faced with crisis, inclusive processes to design policy, moving beyond top-down behavior change campaigns can go a long way in framing how citizens relate to institutions and in fostering trust. Most importantly, if global security is seen as dependent on creating legitimate institutions in “fragile” settings, stabilisation policies need to incorporate into their assessments the risks that security approaches pose to institutional legitimacy. We need in-depth, long-term views, from the perspective of affected populations, when designing short-term crisis management interventions in order for them not to be counter-productive.

You can find out more about Dr Enria's work in Sierra Leone here.

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, International development, Security and defence


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  • Foriengn Aid Make Our Government In Sierra Leone Very Lazy And Always Under Achievd. Eg, Look Government Is Still Reluctant To Fund The National Electoral Commission For The Forth Coming Election Alway Still Hanging For Foriengn Funding. U See With All Our Enrich Natural Minerals We Have, How Many Natural Mineral The U.K Has Including Other European Countries Yet Their Economy Is Actively Booming And We Are Always Yearning To Go There. Let Be Realistic And Am A Realist It All About Bad Governance From Our Policy Makers, Salefishness, Greed, Corruption, Bad Heart. Infact Our Current Government Is Not A Listing Government. In conclusion Am Asking All Foriengn Aids To Immediatly Stop Redirecting Aid Funds To S/leone Since After The Civil War, Ebola, And Land Sliding Aid Fund Our Country Is Just Going Down Down The Drains. Thanxs