Militarising Humanitarian Assistance during Epidemic Outbreaks

Understanding Ebola in Sierra Leone

Hosted by LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development

Investigator: Professor Tim Allen
Investigator: Professor Melissa Parker

Empirical data informing debates on military involvement in Sierra Leone's Ebola outbreak are limited, and it is far from clear what actually occurred.


This project will assess the effects of militarised humanitarian responses to Ebola in Sierra Leone on public authorities, during and after the 2014-16 epidemic. It will analyse the ways in which the accountability of humanitarian actors to Ebola-affected populations was and is affected by the implementation of enforcement procedures. In particular, the project will address the gaps in data informing what role militaries played during the outbreak, and whether it was in fact marginal or hindered health efforts.


The securitisation of global health is not a new phenomenon. Humanitarian assistance during outbreaks in resource poor nations has, and continues to be, shaped by broader shifts in geopolitics, while medical aid has historically been linked to military actions, even when it has purported to be neutral. In this sense, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was less of a radical shift than some of those involved seemed to suppose. Nevertheless, for a Security Council Resolution to declare the outbreak “a threat to international peace and security” was a pivotal new step in legitimising enforcement for a public health purpose.

By linking the Ebola outbreak to state instability as well as regional and global security, the UN Security Council facilitated a highly militarised approach to treatment and containment, one not explicitly motivated primarily by the health needs of the affected population, but by the potential political consequences of their health crises for others. It provided justification for forms of public authority to impose quarantine and enforced containment on a large scale.

In practice, while the nature of military engagement varied between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, all three governments used their armies to control access to hospitals and Ebola Treatment Centres (ETCs), identify new cases, impose roadblocks and assist with ‘lockdowns’. A further 5,000 international military personnel were deployed by China, Canada, France, Germany, UK and USA to construct ETCs across the region.

Project objectives

  • To document the perspectives of staff employed by the UK and Sierra Leonean armed forces and the Sierra Leonean police, focusing on their reflections of the merits or otherwise of militarising humanitarian assistance during the Ebola outbreak
  • To document perspectives of staff employed by the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Health and Sanitation about the issues and challenges of containing Ebola, focusing on their relationships with national and international armed forces, chieftain authorities and relations at a village level.
  • To document how relationships between different kinds of public authority (including clans, customary leaders, official and unofficial burial teams, informal groupings of young people, vigilante groups, staff from iNGOs) shaped ‘local’ responses to endeavours to contain and treat Ebola.
  • To document the legacies of militarised humanitarian assistance
  • To reflect critically on the findings with the intention of fostering processes of accountability among humanitarian agencies

Further background

Militarising humanitarian assistance provoked strong reactions, especially among scholars who had become highly critical of the militarised humanitariansm in war affected regions since the early 1990s. They argued that militarised enforcement would again end up being counter-productive. Others, however, took the view that militarisation was regrettable, but necessary.

Given the passions aroused, it is surprising that, in general, post-mortems on what happened during the Ebola epidemic are rather muted. Claims are heard, mostly from people associated with governments and the armed forces, that militarisation was a success. Others have implied, or stated outright, that the military role was marginal or perhaps even hindered control efforts. The basic problem is that empirical data informing these debates are limited, and it is far from clear what actually occurred. It might be supposed that local forms of public authority were dramatically altered, but if so, little or nothing is known of the consequences, or what this might mean for future outbreaks.

The proposed research will help to fill these lacunae. It builds on recently completed fieldwork exploring the logics of care and resistance to official endeavours by national and international agencies to contain Ebola in Ribbi chiefdom, Moyamba district (Parker et al, in press). By reflecting on social relationships between formal, hybrid and informal authorities (such as secret societies), our research will address how a morally appropriate form of people’s science emerged under the radar of external scrutiny, including that of a Paramount Chief and the Sierra Leonean armed forces. It is anticipated that further research in other parts of Moyamba district, neighbouring Port Loko and Western Area Rural districts, for instance, will reveal different kinds of responses, thereby shedding light on how public authorities, including national and international armed forces, shaped the Ebola outbreak. 


Profile photo of Tim Allen

Professor Tim Allen is Principal Investigator for the Centre for Public Authority and International Development.

Professor of Development Anthropology in LSE's Department of International Development and Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, Tim Allen has expertise in the fields of complex emergencies, ethnic conflict, health and forced migration.


Profile photo of Dr Melissa Parker

Professor Melissa Parker is an Investigator for CPAID and a medical anthropologist at the Department of Global Health and Development, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Melissa has worked on a range of global health issues in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda and in 2014 helped to establish the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform.



Tommy Hanson

Tommy Matthew Hanson is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Work, School of Social Sciences and Law, Njala University and currently pursuing PhD in Medical Anthropology.



Dr Ahmed Vandi

Ahmed Vandi is a Lecturer at the School of Community health Sciences, Njala University and the Acting Head of the Department of the Community Health and Clinical Studies.



Dr Lawrence Sao Babawo

Lawrence Sao Babawo is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Community Health Sciences in the Department of Nursing, Njala University. He is a member of the government's COVID-19 Scientific, Technical, Advisory Group for Emergencies.


Photo: A Sierra Leonean woman and her child follow a UK serviceman carrying food to their village. Credit: Cpl Jamie Peters RLC/MOD.