Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

“We Know Who Is Eating the Ebola Money!”: Corruption, the State, and the Ebola Response

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

“We Know Who Is Eating the Ebola Money!”: Corruption, the State, and the Ebola Response

Article excerpt

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The goal of this article is not to understand Ebola per se, but to acknowledge that the Ebola crisis reveals certain underlying power relations and creates a special ethnographic window on the structural fault lines in the society and the nation-state. Indeed, one UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) staffer told me that the Ebola crisis served as a kind of body scan that revealed "where the tumors are located." I have chosen to think through what is revealed by the Ebola crisis by focusing on money as one among many possible sites for engagement. How money came into the country to address the Ebola crisis reveals facts about international priorities of course, but I am interested in what Sierra Leoneans' beliefs about Ebola money reveal about their relationship to the state, and about governance at multiple levels and scales (Bedford 2014). It may seem a little perverse to be focused on money when so many lives are on the line, but so much in the Ebola response turned on funding flows. Is food supply getting to the quarantined homes? Are the burial teams and swabbers being paid? Money, its flows and blockages, was a huge part of the story of the Ebola response and following that money was a key way that Sierra Leoneans created knowledge about Ebola and its impact in their country.

Probably the most common framework for news reporting about Ebola money is corruption. When the international and national media report on Ebola money in the region, their focus is quite often on how the money went astray, or on how international donors are required to put their own systems in place because of the lack of trustworthy (that is, uncorrupted) local systems. But this piece is not just a story that reinforces taken-forgranted assumptions about corruption. It is a story of how Sierra Leoneans interact with their state and in so doing construct their state and its sovereignty. In the sections to follow, I will review some theories of state fragility, informality, and corruption. I will then trace people's responses to the Ebola crisis through a number of different moments, at each point reflecting on how their concerns about how the Ebola money was being spent illuminate their expectations of the state. I will argue that the Ebola crisis reveals people's contradictory relationships to their own states, wherein they simultaneously mistrust their politicians and look to their politicians for more, in the process reforging a unique social contract.1 Finally, I will turn to Sierra Leone's relationship to the international community, and how the Ebola money flowed at that level, concluding that the state's "weakness" is produced, in part, by its place in an international system.

Critical Theories of Corruption and State Weakness

In the media and popular perception, corruption is often used to explain, in part, why Ebola was able to take hold and spread in the region (DePinto 2016, Pieterse and Lodge 2015). In addition to the slow response by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Kamradt-Scott 2016), blame is cast on the Guinean, Sierra Leonean, and Liberian Ministries of Health for downplaying the threat at the beginning of the outbreak-giving the virus a foothold - rather than honestly admitting the danger. In addition, the popular conception is that the weak or corrupt health systems were unable to deal with the crisis and crumbled at the first serious challenge. This has certainly been a common way of thinking about the role of the three "weak states" as factors contributing to the spread of the disease and it is now common to posit state weakness or corruption as a contributing factor to the spread of Ebola.2 This approach aligns with the assumptions of mainstream development economists and political scientists that African states are weak or corrupt and need to be helped towards the Western political ideal. To the governance and development experts of the international community, weak states are understood as both corrupt and lacking formality, without a clear separation between "private" and "public" realms as compared to the ideal Western state. …

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