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Global health volunteering, the Ebola outbreak, and instrumental humanitarianisms in Sierra Leone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
JournalTransactions of the institute of british geographers
Early online date29 Nov 2019
Accepted/In press3 Nov 2019
E-pub ahead of print29 Nov 2019

King's Authors


Geographers have long been concerned with the spaces, scales, and conceptual significance of volunteering. They have, however, been slower to engage with the global surge in medical volunteering, whether in times of everyday or acute emergency. Volunteering is a crucial component of the architectures of global health and humanitarianism, but it remains marginal to the concerns of both health and development geographers. This paper seeks to address this lacuna through drawing on the case study of the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. When the outbreak was belatedly declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in 2014, volunteers flowed into Sierra Leone to aid in the response. In drawing on qualitative research with volunteers from a small, Freetown-based NGO, we aim to close two explicit theoretical gaps. First, we draw out the geographical significance of volunteering during an outbreak of such exceptionality that the modalities, methods and architectures of global health and humanitarianism closed in on one another. Second, we explore how the act and experience of volunteering during the Ebola outbreak helped those involved apprehend what global health might mean and be. In so doing, we also reflect on the instrumental use of humanitarianism within a global health field whose professional contours are often remarkably difficult to navigate. In empirical terms, this intervention is rendered even more significant given the discipline's wider neglect of the Ebola outbreak as a crucial moment where the failures of global health were exposed and the toolkits of humanitarian intervention were pushed to their limits.

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