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Understanding the Ebola Response in West Africa. Utility of the "Speech Act" Discourse of Securitisation

Hausarbeit 2015 17 Seiten

Gesundheit - Public Health


Table of Contents

Table of Figures



Speech Act Discourse and Securitisation
Strengths and Limitations of Copenhagen School

Understanding the Ebola Response in West Africa: Background
From a West African Problem to a Western Problem
Global Response
Ebola Mitigation Measures



Table of Figures

Figure 1. Ebola Daily Chart


Appendix 1 Global Ebola Response - Resource Tracking


The alarming threats of infectious diseases, inter alia, anthrax, swine flu, Hantavirus, SARS, AIDS, and Ebola, have called for the concept of security to be redefined to include issues of infectious diseases and health, relevant to challenges that bedevil post-Cold War states. This has provided impetus to the emergence of health security and human security paradigms following the first United Nations Security Council’s special session dedicated to IDS. Subsequently, Canada and Denmark, among others, have explicitly included health security and human security issues in their national and foreign policies. Yet, traditional security scholars rebuff the idea of reconceptualising security to include health and infectious diseases, claiming that any alteration dilutes the meaning of security and renders “it a catch all term for anything negative” (Youde, 2004, p. 193). This research seeks to investigate how critical security scholars, particularly the Copenhagen School, contribute to our understanding of security in International Relations. Focusing on securitisation of health, the study draws on the recent Ebola pandemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to explain the limitations of securitisation theory, propounded by the Copenhagen School, for International Relations theory.

The study argues that the Copenhagen School’s conceptualisation of global security tends to favour a ‘negative’ version of security, fathomed as security from existential threats, supporting the traditional notion of security as survival. This isolates health issues from their systemic causes, instigating responsive mechanisms rather than preventative policies. Accordingly, substantial attention and resources are directed towards communicable, rather than non-communicable and chronic, diseases. The study also claims that this way of conceptualising security conjures the understanding of health via the prism of state interests, as pandemic and communicable diseases are perceived to pose potential threats to state security. Thus, securitisation practice bequeaths priority to state security over human security, and therefore fails to tackle the structural causes of global health inequalities that produce and reproduce these pandemics.

This study is divided into two parts: the first critically analyses the theoretical framework of securitisation. It methodically examines securitisation assumptions of Barry Buzan, Jaap de Wilde and Ole Waever (1998); the strengths of the securitisation framework, particularly in securitising health; and limitations of the securitisation theory to understanding global health issues. These analyses set the context for the second part of the study, ‘Ebola case study in West Africa - Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone’. The Ebola case study particularly demonstrates that global health issues only become security priorities when Western countries feel threatened, most especially when coined as a national security threat to the US and the UK.

Speech Act Discourse and Securitisation

Buzan et al͘’s (1998) seminal work, Security: a new framework of analysis, adopted a ‘speech act’ approach to security study, broadening the security agenda to include threats beyond traditional state- centric and military conceptions of security. To include individuals, sub-state groups, and global concerns such as the environment that were marginalised by the traditional notion of security, Buzan et al. (also known as the Copenhagen School) developed a distinct perspective in the security debate, treating security as a social process outcome, rather than an objective condition. This inter-subjective nature of representing social issues as security threats is performed by securitising ‘speech acts’, grounded on J͘ L͘ ustin’s speech act theory, which argued language is not only used to describe or convey a meaning but also to constitute a form of action or a social activity (Austin, 1962; Buzan, Waever, & de Wilde, 1998). For instance, a speaker saying “thank you,” “you are fired” or “I nominate,” is employing “language not just for the purposes of description, but also for actually doing something else with wider social significance - hence the term speech acts” (Elbe, 2010, p. 11). Subsequently, constructing who or what is being secured, and from what, develops from a securitising speech act through which a particular threat becomes represented and recognised (Williams, 2003, p. 513). This implies that there are choices involved in deciding which issues are to be labelled as security threats.

According to Buzan et al. (1998, pp. 26-36), a security speech act comprises five integral elements to be met for a successful securitisation to occur: securitising actors, referent objects, existential threat, a call for emergency measures, and audience. Securitising actors such as political leaders and intelligence experts must declare a referent object such as a state, society, or population, to be existentially threatened (Elbe, 2010, p. 11; Williams, 2003). The securitising actors must then make a persuasive appeal to implement emergency measures to counter the existential threat (Elbe, 2010, p. 11; Williams, 2003); and the audience must sufficiently accept the claim for political actions to be taken that would not have otherwise been conceivable in a routine political setting (Elbe, 2010, p. 11; Williams, 2003). Governments, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations contend that the survival of state, communities, or individuals is highly at risk, unless desperate measures are taken by national and international actors to avert those crucial threats. Accordingly, health security, environmental security, and food security have been advanced with the linguistic grammar of security speech acts.

While scholars argue conceptualising health security debates as the securitisation of ‘health’ (Youde, 2004; Elbe, 2010), the question arises whether health securitisation can bypass the restraints of regular politics. In answer, Waever (1995) maintains that “the use of security label does not merely reflect whether a problem is a security problem, it is also a political choice, that is, a decision to conceptualise in a special way” (p͘ 65)͘ For example, political parties in the UK choose whether to represent immigration issues as a security threat or as a human rights concern. Likewise, policy elites in international organisations choose whether to characterise health issues as public, development, or international security concerns. The ensuing paragraphs analyse the strengths and limitations of the Copenhagen School.

Strengths and Limitations of Copenhagen School

The Copenhagen School’s securitisation theory has added greatly to our understanding of security in international relations. Buzan et al. (1998) have broadened the security agenda to include referent objects marginalised by the traditional conception of security. While the traditional notion of security focuses on military threats, the Copenhagen School successfully argued that not all states face the same security threats, therefore one cannot exogenously presume a state’s security interests (Youde, 2004, p. 194). This model of securitisation theory makes the concept of security more relevant to meeting security challenges such as HIV-AIDS and Ebola. Although preferring the term ‘biosecurity’, David Fidler and Lawrence Gostin (2008, p. 9) posit that security is impossible without closer integration of the health and security communities. Writing from the Asian SARS experience, Caballero-Anthony iterates “the threats of infectious diseases require urgent responses͘ The regional community and states need not wait for the worst-case scenario of state failure before infectious diseases can be considered as a matter of national security. Hence, there is a need to securitise” (Caballero-Anthony, 2005, p. 489). This suggests that the traditionalists’ focus on military threats alone is superficial; here, the threat of SARS is considered a national security issue threatening complete state failure. This underscores Fidler and Lawrence’s (2008) argument that security is impossible without integrating health into the discourse. Additionally, it can be argued that elevating health issues to the level of security concerns offers opportunities to mobilise greater political force and key resources to address a variety of global health issues.

However, some scholars and policy makers have cast doubt about the influence and utility of conflating health and security concerns. It can be argued that responding to health issues as national security threats transforms the logic of international health action into one based on narrow states’ self- interests, corresponding to the traditional concept of security where state survival takes precedence. Thus, arguably, the securitisation concept gives precedence to the security of states and considers international health policies as instruments in pursuit of national security (McInnes & Rushton, 2012). For instance, the UK and US governments have perceived global health engagement as state security ends. The White House, in 2009, endorsed President Obama’s Global Health Initiative as an “important component of the national security ‘smart power’ strategy” (The White House, 2009). Similarly, the UK government’s Global Health Report for 2008 depicts Global Health Initiatives as instruments to pursue national security (HM Government, 2008). Consequently, global health policies tend to exhibit focuses on pragmatism rather than humanitarianism; and cannot deliver effective health schemes focused on human wellbeing (McInnes & Rushton, 2012), as health policies become a means to realise state ends.

The instrumental perception of global health security conjures questions about conceptual and normative appropriateness. Viewing health through the lenses of state interest creates imbalanced prioritisation of global health: communicable diseases potentially threatening state security receive greater attention and resources than non-communicable and chronic conditions (Davis, 2010). Despite being critical health issues for many individuals, non-communicable diseases such as diarrheal diseases, killing 1.8 million annually of which 90% are children (McInnes & Lee, 2006, p. 11), receive little attention from a securitisation perspective. Successful securitisation of health issues advances beyond routine political discourse, prioritising them atop political agendas and giving them maximum attention and resources (Davis, 2010). Essentially, one concern of securitising global health issues is that they only become a ‘crisis’ when Western countries feel threatened (Roemer-Mahler & Rushton, 2016, p. 375), suggesting that securitisation process is selective and, arguably, Eurocentric. This was evidenced when the US 2002 National Security Strategy inferred that ‘good governance’ should be a condition for health aid, signifying human access to better health is not a ‘necessity’, but subordinate to neoliberal Western ideas of democracy (McInnes & Lee, 2006). This approach could create inaction or inadequate responses to tackling deadly diseases that do not pose security threats to the West.

Furthermore, global health security literature predominantly favours a negative version of security, whereby security is understood as security from existential threat (Brown & Stoeva, 2014, p. 306), adopting the traditional view of security as survival (Booth, 2007). Conversely, a positive version of security covers the pursuit of individual wellbeing as a means of achieving long-term stability and security (Gjorv, 2012). Security theories which promote a negative conception of security construct an understanding of health purely as survival and security from threats. Yet, health is far more than freedom from disease or survival: people can survive free from diseases, yet live in very poor sanitation or lack adequate nourishment, which would not constitute healthy living. While critics argue that poor sanitation, for instance, does not conform to security as existential threat, securitising health only on the premise of ‘existential threat’ shifts the focus from the individual as the referent object to the state, reinforcing the realist conception of security. This approach is problematic, because state security then takes precedence over human health, by addressing health issues that threaten the state rather than health issues that threaten human life. Accordingly, this negative conceptualisation of security tends to isolate health from its systemic causes and favour responsive rather than preventative strategies.

Research papers presented at the Centre for Global Health Policy expose further limitations of health securitisation: framing global health issues as technical biomedical conundrums to either be prevented or cured, failing to mitigate the principal structures that create and reproduce global health inequalities (Anderson, 2014; Nunes, 2016). This suggests that predominant focus is on the technicalities of diseases, instead of the political environment. In evidence, Yassif et al. (2013) note that a Chatham House report outlined recommendations for disease prevention that focus exclusively on the problems posed by “potentially threatening bio-technology and human-animal contact” (Jegat, 2015, p. 3). The risk of framing global health as a technical biomedical challenge is that it both shifts focus from the underlying political structures, and hampers long term developmental projects to potentially enhance both human and state security.

Responses to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa typify these explanations. Attention paid to the virus was episodic, temporary, and arose from concerns with countering an outbreak that potentially constituted a threat to national security, unambiguously to the West (Davies, 2015). This paper concentrates next on the Ebola response in West Africa.



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Titel: Understanding the Ebola Response in West Africa. Utility of the "Speech Act" Discourse of Securitisation