Constructivism and the Ebola Epidemic

Paul Richards writes “Ebola is a disease of social intimacy” (Richards 1). Ebola is transferred through bodily fluids, and therefore is often transferred to those caring for the sick or washing the bodies of the dead. There is no cure for Ebola, simply palliative care. Although there have been several recorded outbreaks of Ebola, the 2013 outbreak in Upper West Africa quickly turned into an epidemic. With inadequate domestic health systems, Doctors without Borders, among other NGOs, were the main actors on the ground (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 420).

The efforts of such aid agencies can be understood through the constructivist lens. A book published in 2017 notes that constructivists would focus on “how we think we know what world health means, and how that meaning came to be established” (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 424). This means that all foreign aid efforts and healthcare infrastructure must be evaluated in terms of their cultural and historical contexts. As mentioned previously, Ebola is a very intimate disease. There are many social practices deeply engrained in local cultures that contributed to the spread of the disease. For example, ritual burials where the bodies are washed before they are buried is a very dangerous practice during an Ebola epidemic. Due to the spiritual and social implications of a traditional burial, however, many Africans continued to wash and bury bodies in the traditional way. Western aid workers, however, drew problematic assumptions based on this fact. Many assumed that Africans were “stubborn” in their “unsafe” traditions and unwilling to listen to the recommendations of aid workers (Richards 48). This apparently problematic assumption does not recognize that from a social and spiritual perspective, an “epidemiologically safe” burial is deemed spiritually unsafe by the local population (Richards 52). The issue is the social disconnect between the Western aid workers and the African locals, who are acting on their ingrained social practices. This idea exemplifies the fact that cultural ‘norms’ and ideas drive the behavior of a country’s citizens.

Despite providing medical resources, the aid workers were primarily responsible for “changing the ideas” of the people in Western Africa (Richards 28). This, in itself, exemplifies the “constructivist” viewpoint. Western aid workers acted in ways that reflected their individualistic, direct, and informal upbringings. They struggled to understand the communal, traditional, and spiritual characteristics of African culture. This led the aid workers to act in a way that did not include locals in the Ebola eradication efforts.

In a 2014 post, Susan Shepler describes the popular coverage of the Ebola crisis, “People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done?  Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine? (Shepler)” This type of coverage highlights the “ignorance” of African citizens. This is not “ignorance,” however, and can be explained by several cultural factors. The most important factor that highlights the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint is that African citizens have a “mistrust for the state” (Shepler). Because of this “mistrust,” many ignore public health warnings from the state. This “mistrust of the state” that Shepler mentions is something that is deeply woven into the actions and decisions made by many African people. This exemplifies the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint in that politics and decisions of people are shaped by “non-material” elements.

The “constructivist” viewpoint can also be explained by the differences in the “norms” between the home countries of the aid workers and Western Africa. In developed countries, it is common to have a surplus of household supplies including trash bags, rubber gloves, and rain jackets. In developing countries, however, these items are not common. In 2014, as the international push to stop Ebola began, The World Health Organization developed their agenda to fight Ebola based on what they call ‘the messaging approach’ (Richards 124). The “messages” spread by the World Health Organization included how Ebola is spread, how to safely care for someone who supposedly has Ebola, and how to create protective clothing from “common” household items. The World Health Organization, however, did not acknowledge the impracticalities of these messages. Resources such as raincoats, trash bags, and gloves are difficult, if not impossible, to find locally in Western Africa. The differences in resource constraints, and the “norms” in each society influenced how The World Health Organization initially responded to the Ebola crisis and how locals reacted to the messaging.

As a final point, it is important to recognize that while the Western response of aid workers to the Ebola epidemic can be explained by the “constructivist” point of view, the situation entirely violates the ‘liberalist’ view. From a liberal perspective, the efforts to end the Ebola epidemic should have been a group, “holistic” approach. It is clear that this is not what occurred. The efforts to end Ebola were more divisive than communal.

Domestic and Foreign Effects of International Aid

“The urge to help” is a common phrase that resonates throughout many academic works. While, in many cases, the “urge to help” may be less pragmatic and more self-benefitting, there are domestic social benefits that result from these trends. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the ethnographic report The Need to Help by Liisa Malkki.

It has been established that positive intentions do not directly correlate with positive outcomes. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the implications of positive intentions in a domestic atmosphere. In The Need to Help, Malkki discusses the implications of international aid efforts in the country of Finland. Finland’s culture stresses the importance of the individual; community is not integral to Finnish society (Malkki 137). In her book, Malkki refers to the community that has been built as a result of the “Aid Bunnies” (a project of the Finnish Red Cross). This “community” is largely archived on crafter’s blogs and internet sites (Malkki 119). This community can also be exemplified by the various knitting groups that have arisen from the project. In Finland, many people, especially the elderly, gain community from these domestic volunteer efforts. It is important that Finnish people are encouraged to find community, as loneliness can lead to several negative factors including an increased mortality rate (Malkki 138). This contrasts the American need to help, which stems from the American values of self-improvement and reliance on fake humility.

It is evident that as many Fins participate in humanitarian efforts to achieve community, they are not acting in complete selflessness. It is also apparent that in many (if not most) humanitarian efforts the actor is not completely selfless. The “Aid Bunny” project allows for people to participate in humanitarian efforts in a more “human” way while creating a sense of community for its participants and allowing them to fulfill a specific internal need. The question that remains is: where do we draw the line between preserving domestic humanity and, the more pragmatic option, effectively meeting the needs of foreign aid-recipients. An effective answer to this question requires more analytical research on the impact of aid in foreign countries.

While it is difficult to interpret the fine line between the two aforementioned values, it is important to consider the impact of citizens’ imagination on foreign aid-recipients. Imagination in humanitarian efforts have two main effects: imagination makes performing humanitarian efforts more meaningful, and it de-individualizes foreign aid-recipients. It is important that aid workers and volunteers understand the implications of one’s “imagination.” In The Need to Help, Malkki writes “The suspension (if not erasure) of the child’s parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives, and also friends, teachers, and neighbors, was a striking feature in the imagining of the needy children” (9). Adding imagination to the visualization of the needs of foreign aid recipients neglects many important factors. This omission can perpetuate a problematic image of foreign aid recipients. The use of imagination in foreign aid is an important factor to consider when evaluating the efficacy and value of international aid projects.

In a recent discussion with Betty Bigombe, she was asked about the effectiveness of campaigns such as The Enough Project. Although it has garnered national attention, The Enough Project has long been criticized for their ineffective and incomplete messaging about conflict minerals in the Congo. Bigombe remarked that it is difficult for American activists to tell the complete story and still gain support. Despite this, the publicity that the campaigns provide is very important (Bigombe). This idea parallels that of the “Aid Bunnies.” Although it may not be the most effective or pragmatic way of addressing an issue, it garners national attention and allows a wide range of participation in philanthropic acts.

The provision of foreign aid affects both the provider and the recipient countries. When evaluating the effectiveness of various humanitarian efforts, the social domestic benefits must be evaluated in addition to the more pragmatic foreign effects. Foreign aid efforts in Finland, specifically the “Aid Bunnies” have been successful in boosting Finnish morale. These domestic effects are important to recognize when determine the efficacy of various international aid projects.

International Event: Betty Bigombe

I attended a lecture by Betty Bigombe. Betty Bigombe is currently the Senior Director for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence at the World Bank. Bigombe is also well known for initiating and conducting peace talks with Joseph Kony. She is an incredibly influential woman and she also trains woman mediators.

In this lecture, Bigombe talked mainly about the importance of women and children in state conflict mediation processes. She argues that it is time for the UN and international communities to ensure peace keeping success by involving women in the peace keeping negotiations and processes. This can only happen through targeted mentoring of women in “affirmative action” efforts. According to Bigombe, women and children are frequent victims of violence and are large bearers of the burden of war. Many women have been able to find strong voices on the grassroots level, however, women must take part in the senior level of peace making decisions. Bigombe works to help women have the opportunity to have a seat at the peace keeping table. Bigombe also argues that when women are involved in the peace keeping negotiations, there are positive results that enhance the overall success of the mission. Women are able to talk more candidly about things such as sexual harassment, childbearing, etc.

I had no idea that peacekeeping was such gendered work. Bigombe mentioned that in 2008, the UN had very few women peacekeeping envoys. According to Bigombe, women were not leading mediation efforts anywhere. This is quite shocking as Bigombe pointed out the benefits to having women lead peacekeeping efforts. I think that Bigombe is doing great work by trying to propel women to make their contribution to sustainable, long-lasting peace. It is vital to the success of peacekeeping efforts that women are included in the discussion. Bigombe talked about how when she was mediating in Northern Uganda with the LRA, she played the role as a “mother.” Even the groups that she was negotiating with called her “mother.” Womanhood has incredibly unique power in many aspects of social interaction. Women should have the tools needed to utilize this power in peacekeeping negotiations.

Bigombe’s lecture reminded me of the concept of the “individual level” of analysis. As mentioned and exemplified previously, Bigombe is an incredibly powerful woman. She has held impressive titles and has studied at the best schools around the globe. Her personality, perception, choices, and activities directly impact different aspects of the international social sphere. The idea of the “individual level” of analysis is especially relevant when discussing Bigombe’s peace talk negotiations. In many cases, Bigombe was alone during these conversations. In these instances, she was acting as an individual actor. Recently in class we have also talked about intergovernmental organizations. Bigombe touched on her experiences working with these organizations including the UN and the World Bank. The way she discussed these organizations exemplified that they are “actors” as well as “frameworks.” This is an illustration that I found extremely powerful in the context of our class discussions.

I entirely agree with Bigombe’s points. She is a fantastic woman who is leading efforts to empower women across the world. She is entirely correct in recognizing the full power of women to participate in peace talk efforts. I hope that as Bigombe continues to encourage the participation of women in peace talks, this idea becomes reality. I believe that Bigombe is right in saying that women are more effective than men (in many areas) of peace talk efforts. Bigombe concluded her lecture by mentioning that exclusion is a vicious cycle; the exclusion of women in peace talk efforts only breed more exclusion. It is time that women have a seat at the table in peace talk efforts.

International Event: Technologic Entanglement in Cyberspace

For my second international event, I went to a lecture entitled “Beyond Deterrence by Denial and Threat: Technologic Entanglement in Cyberspace” with Aaron Brantly. Brantly’s main argument was that it is very difficult to achieve deterrence by threat of punishment in an effective and efficient way. It is already costly to maintain effective security systems, however, it is even more costly to recover from a deterrence failure. A system of entanglement that promotes technological interdependence is beneficial to preventing cyberattacks. Entanglement has several benefits: it allows for heterogeneous involvement and market development, it supports shared research and development programs, it encourages mutual technological development, it encourages economic interdependence, and it allows for security throughout information sharing. In short, entanglement shifts the focus of deterrence actions from costs and benefits to gains and losses. Despite the benefits of entanglement, Brantly also agreed that deterrence through entanglement should not function in isolation. It is necessary that entanglement is supplemented by additional forms of deterrence.

Despite the fact that I did not have any previous knowledge on the topic, this presentation was rather interesting and insightful to me. I had never really considered the different methods of ensuring national cybersecurity. As a business major, I was interested in researching the ways that cyberspace security intersects with the business and technology industries. I think that cyberspace security will continue to become prevalent in the business world as we continue to increase our reliance on technology.

El Walmart !!

Thursday was our “follow Walmart’s supply chain day.” We started out by visiting a large farm that harvested peppers. We had a tour of the greenhouses and the owner of the farm gave a small presentation. He talked about how he enjoys selling his product to Walmart. They give him access to tools and techniques that would not otherwise be available to him. One thing that was interesting: farmers never sign contracts with Walmart. They only continue to sell as long as the quality and conditions are good. We then moved to a smaller farm. The owner gave a similar presentation. We got to see where the produce is grown, where it is washed, and where it is packaged. After visiting the second farm, we stopped for lunch at a foot truck court. I got some ceviche, it was good. After lunch, we bought some flowers from a woman selling them out of her truck, because why not?!?! Flowers in hand, we headed to the Walmart produce distribution center. We got a tour of the warehouse: where produce is brought in, evaluated, and sent out. It was very interesting.

Miércoles en San José

On Wednesday, we visited two companies: CINDE and Baxter Healthcare. CINDE is Costa Rica’s investment promotion agency. They work to bring foreign investments and capital into the country. They have been largely successful in creating more of a “business scene” here in Costa Rica. Interestingly enough, CINDE told us that the largest export out of Costa Rica is medical equipment. Convienantly, the next company that we visited was Baxter Healthcare. Baxter Healthcare is a American health care company. They have a massive factory in San Jose that produces medical tubing. The visit to the factory was unlike anything that I have ever experienced before. They walked us through their sterile rooms and showed us a video of the company’s “best practices” for shift changes on the assembly line. After Baxter, I had some authentic “al pastor” tacos for lunch. They were delicious. We took a brief break for happy hour, then went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was good — I had a pizza.

Primera Visita de una Compañía

On Tuesday, we drove from the Arenal area and back to San Jose. Our new hotel is in the middle of the business district. It is very nice and lovely. We stopped at a mall food court for lunch, and I grabbed a Greek chicken pita. Naturally, I had to get a palleta for dessert. It was delicious. After lunch, we went to our first corporate visit: Gensler. Gensler is a collaborative design and architecture firm that has offices all around the world. The visit was really great. They have an incredible and ecofriendly office space that was really interesting to visit. We ate dinner at a sushi / hibachi restaurant and it was really great. I had a Costa Rica Roll and it was delicious. It had plantain and fried shrimp. It was quite unique.

San José ➸ Fortuna

This morning we woke up to the natural light from the huge window in our room. It was beautiful! We ate breakfast at the hotel (eggs, beans, rice, typical “Tico” breakfast), then headed to the zip lining place. Zip lining as super fun. It was a huge course and there were like 14 cables that we got to cross. It was great!

After the zip line, we ate lunch at a little place. I had beans, rice, a plantain, steak, and potatoes. I also had a mango / strawberry smoothie. It was delicious. I should’ve taken a picture.

After lunch, we headed to the Volcano Arenal National Park. It was about a hour and a half long hike through the jungle. I didn’t take many pictures, but we saw some cool animals including a money and a toucan. It was really interesting and good to get some exercise. We headed back to the hotel and are here for the night.

Some cool trees in the jungle. This tree was huge.

The journey down the hill is so scary and seemingly unsafe, we decided to get some foods to prepare at the hotel from the store. I snagged some peanut butter. I can’t complain!!

Costa Rica – Día Uno

Pretty flowers in San José

Today is our first full day in Costa Rica!

After we arrived last night, we had dinner at a Tapas bar and went to Walmart. We also took about an hour long bus ride to an local arts festival. When we arrived at the festival, all of the music was over. There was, however, a boxing match going on. It was an adventure.

This morning, we got up early to drive from San Jose to Fortuna. We went to a sustainable farm for a tour and lunch. Everything in the lunch was produced at the farm. The tour was also very interesting. We got to try several fruits / leaves / plants. Our guide painted my face with some Turmeric (I hope it comes off lol)!?!

Turmeric on my face. Update – it came off!

After the farm, we headed to our next hotel. To get to the hotel, which is basically on the top of a mountain, we had to take our HUGE tour bus up a HUGE hill. It was quite spooky. I cannot describe to you how large our bus was and how small / curvy the road was. I was honestly surprised that we even attempted to make it up the hill. Somehow, we made it. The hotel is fabulous. We all have little cabins on the top of this huge mountain.

We went to dinner at a delicious Italian restaurant and journeyed up the mountain back to our hotel. On the way up, the bus started smoking. Somehow, we made it up once again!

After dinner, we played card games and hung out. It’s always a good time with these peeps! I’m looking forward to the next few days.

I’m obsessed with all of the flowers here!