Future Research Leaders 2016 Luisa Enria - States of Emergency: Citizenship in Times of Crisis in Sierra Leone

  • Enria, Luisa (PI)

Project: Research council

Project Details


The proposed research project develops work on the association of security and development priorities, by exploring how a heavily militarised response to the outbreak of Ebola has influenced experiences of citizenship amongst socio-economically marginal youth in Sierra Leone. Drawing on a variety of disciplines, from medical anthropology to security studies and political sociology, this study will probe into the nature of state-society relation in times of 'crisis'. In so doing it will analyse both normative definitions of citizenship created through emergency policy interventions and the everyday negotiations and contestations of citizenship by marginal urban youth living in a constant state of emergency. The Ebola outbreak that has overwhelmed West Africa since 2014 came only a decade after the end of a devastating civil war in Sierra Leone. The cyclical nature of crisis has been linked to structural fragilities, including weak institutions unable to gain the trust of large populations living in poverty. This has made Sierra Leone emblematic of the increasing trend in international development policy that treats poverty reduction as a security priority aimed at mitigating threats to national and international stability. Young people living in urban slum areas have been especially affected by the increasing depiction of poverty as a security risk. First, as they were identified as potential recruits in rebel armies, and secondly as they were seen as vessels of disease during an Ebola outbreak characterised by urban contagion. Young people's recent experiences of a militarised Ebola response thus offer a fascinating entry-point into the study of how crisis creates citizens in a developing country. While much has been written on the processes whereby security and development priorities have become intertwined, much less is known about how these dynamics impact target populations. This study will thus explore how the securitisation of poverty influences definitions, negotiations and experiences of citizenship in Sierra Leone. This means firstly understanding how the proclamation of states of emergency influences normative definitions of citizenship. Secondly, it means exploring how living under emergency shapes how citizens relate to their sovereign authority and how they negotiate their position in a fragile political community. Methodologically, the study will firstly involve collecting and analysing grey literature from a multitude of agencies involved in the Ebola response in Sierra Leone to tease out policy narratives around citizenship during the outbreak. Secondly, it will entail three months of ethnographic fieldwork amongst young residents of the Magazine Wharf slum area of Freetown, a neighbourhood particularly badly hit by the epidemic. Through interviews, life histories and participant observation, the study will explore young people's everyday interactions with state institutions and their resulting definitions, negotiations and expectations of citizenship. This research builds on my previous extensive work in Sierra Leone, firstly on young people's post-war political mobilisation and later on community experiences of an Ebola vaccine trial, working as a participant observer with marginal urban youth. This work thus further develops my interest in how high-level policy discourses and development interventions actually impact the everyday lives of marginalised populations in developing countries.

Layman's description

This research project explores how a heavily militarised response to the outbreak of Ebola has influenced experiences of citizenship amongst socio-economically marginal youth in Sierra Leone. Drawing on a variety of disciplines, from medical anthropology to security studies and political sociology, this study will probe into the nature of state-society relation in times of 'crisis'.

The key objective of this project therefore is to probe into the definitions, negotiations and contestations of citizenship as experienced by socio-economically marginal youth in Sierra Leone. This involves looking beyond legal definitions of citizenship to look instead at daily interactions between citizens and their institutions that make up different understandings of a social contract. These processes are analysed along two dimensions, distinguishing between top-down processes whereby citizens are made and bottom-up processes of self-making. This means looking at how citizens are created through normative categorisations, such as securitising discourses and disease prevention tactics, while also considering the nature of popular notions of political community and young people’s claims on the state. This project will thus answer the following research questions through discourse analysis of policy documents and qualitative research with urban youth: 1) How do times of crisis influence definitions of citizenship and 2) How do times of crisis influence how young people see their position vis-à-vis the state?

The findings from this research are thus likely to be of interest to a broad audience and they will be able to influence public debates from two points of view:

1) In terms of assessing the outcomes of using security concerns to justify policy interventions in the developing world; and

2) Through contribution to the post-Ebola reconstruction process in West Africa and ongoing reflections on lessons learned from the outbreak.

The first aim is to critically assess the securitisation of poverty, that is, the increasing emphasis by development donors on the role of aid budgets as strategic tools for promoting local and international security. As security becomes increasingly expedient to justify policy interventions, from border control to disease prevention, it is imperative to understand what implications this has on the subjects of policy. By studying how the Ebola outbreak was designated as a threat to international peace, and how particular sections of the population, such as the urban poor, were identified as security threats, the study will develop an understanding of the consequences of securitisation.

The second aim therefore is to understand how securitisation influences the social contract between the state and its citizens, by studying how times of crisis produce norms, practices and expectations of citizenship. Across 'fragile' contexts, the issue of trust in institutions and state stability has been of central concern to policy-makers engaged in reconstruction. Through the case study of the post-Ebola landscape, this research proposes to study how emergencies themselves and the policies put in place to tackle them influence already eroded social contracts.

The third aim is to study how an unprecedented Ebola outbreak, and its heavy-handed response, in Sierra Leone have impacted the daily lives of poor citizens. In particular, the research project aims to understand how Ebola has influenced young Sierra Leoneans' experience of the state and trust in their institutions.
Effective start/end date1/10/1630/09/18


  • Economic and Social Research Council

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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