Ebola anthropology: from real-time social science to building future local capacity

Professor Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute for Development Studies, and with her research team won the 2016 Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding International Impact.

This is the third in a series of blogs delving further into the research behind the impact awards. Applications for the 2017 Celebrating Impact Prize opened this week.


I was truly delighted when our team won the ESRC’s Outstanding International Impact award in 2016 for our work during the 2014-15 Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Our Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) and related Ebola: Lessons for Development initiative showed how and why long-term social science understandings, mobilised rapidly in real-time, could transform an epidemic response. Our work focused on issues like the social significance of burials, the value of community knowledge, practices and institutions, and contextualising the violence being experienced by health workers.

The Ebola epidemic was as much an epidemic of mistrust as of a virus, and the part we played was to help humanitarian agencies understand political tensions and local customs, rebuild trust and enable more respectful engagement with affected communities. This was very much a team effort, involving collaboration and partnership between researchers at the Institute of Development Studies (myself, Annie Wilkinson and others), the University of Sussex (James Fairhead), the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (Melissa Parker and Fred Martineau), the University of Exeter (Ann Kelly), and Njala University in Sierra Leone (Paul Richards, Esther Mokuwa and others).

Assisting international agencies

While we had already had very positive direct feedback from many of the organisations our work helped inform – including the UK government and the Department for International Development (DFID), the World Health Organisation and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), plus many non-governmental and humanitarian organisations working on the ground – the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize is a vital public acknowlegdement of the initiative as a whole, giving legitimacy to the very real value of anthropology in epidemic response.

We are now working with several agencies to consider how the ‘platform’ model for rapid knowledge mobilisation that we developed might be adapted to inform responses to other epidemics, in West Africa or elsewhere in the world, and indeed responses to other humanitarian crises, for instance involving natural disasters or conflict. We are also addressing how health systems – and the social and governance systems they are embedded in – might become more inclusive, trusted and resilient, to help head off future outbreaks and prevent them spiralling into crises.

Lessons learned

We have also been reflecting on the lessons to be drawn from ERAP, and two in particular stand out.

First is the importance of long-term social science and anthropological research, and support for it – including funding. The rapid response that we were able to mount would not have been possible without the team’s years and indeed decades of anthropological and interdisciplinary research in the region including projects, PhD and Masters’ theses, and the work of the ESRC STEPS Centre, funded by the ESRC and others. Some of this research had addressed health issues, but also important were understandings of broader aspects of social life, gender and political-economic context. To be ready to mobilise to prepare and respond to crises, such knowledge needs to be built in advance through patient commitment of time and resources; an important message in an era when the value of social science is too often equated with short term work yielding only immediate impacts.

Second is the importance of local and regional social science capacity. Crucial to ERAP’s effectiveness were partnerships between UK-based anthropologists with long-term experience in the West African region, and local researchers based there. In our case, these included Roland Suluku, Joseph Amara and Esther Mokuwa of Njala University who played a key part in designing and carrying out real-time field data collection. Their fieldwork and anthropological skills were essential to ERAP’s effectiveness. Ideally, future social science engagement in epidemic preparedness and response would be more fully led by locally-based researchers and their institutions, yet in resource-poor settings such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the essential skills and capacities are few and far between.

A lasting legacy

27781497111_5ecd14eb1d_zIt is for these reasons that we have decided to use the £10,000 Impact Prize money to help build local capacity for health-related anthropological research in the Ebola-affected region. A series of 10-15 small grants will enable Masters’ students at African universities to undertake short field-based projects for their dissertations, and to write these up with appropriate mentoring, drawing out their implications for epidemic preparedness and response.

A call for applicants was launched at a workshop at Njala University in September, with grants to be awarded for spending in 2017.

The ‘Ebola in Anthropological Perspective’ workshop – funded by EHLRA (DFID-Wellcome Trust-SCF) to bring together 30 anthropologists from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Uganda, UK, USA, France and Germany with the aim of understanding and improving local engagement with major infectious disease outbreaks and with each other – itself consolidated and extended regional anthropological networks which our grantees will be well-positioned to join. Not only will they be equipped with expertise and experience that could prove invaluable in a future infectious disease outbreak, but they should also be able to apply their skills to ongoing public health challenges in their countries.

In these ways we hope that the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize, awarded for social science in rapid response to an existing epidemic crisis, may help to transform long-term social science capacity to prepare for and prevent such crises in the future.

You can follow @mleach_ids and @IDS_UK on Twitter. Follow the ESRC Impact Prize using #impactprize

One thought on “Ebola anthropology: from real-time social science to building future local capacity

  1. Pingback: Ebola anthropology from realtime social science to building future local capacity | Real Media - The News You Don't See

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