Carving Space and Staking Claims: Defining Crisis Relief

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Samantha PENTA, University at Albany, State University of New York, USA
Crises can generate response needs that exceed the capacities of local resources and trigger the involvement of outside actors to meet crisis demands. As these actors converge on the affected area, they must develop an understanding of the response context and set parameters around their own activity. Using interviews, observation, and document analysis, this study examines how relief effort participants developed definitions and boundaries as they planned and implemented international crisis medical relief efforts. This study focuses on governmental and non-governmental relief workers involved in efforts responding to one of two events: the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In some cases, these actors generated completely new definitions in planning the response. At other points, they applied pre-existing definitions to the situations they faced, often adapting them through selective bridging, breaching, and alteration. Relief workers employed numerous definitions and boundaries in their work to both define the event and to define the response itself. Specifically, responders defined the event, the target areas and population, the problem they aimed to address, their goals and objectives, temporal boundaries of the event and response, and defined who the responders themselves were. Importantly, similarities appeared across both events. Study participants from both cases and a variety of group types utilized similar types of definitions, and relief workers ultimately came to define both crises as issues of public health. The definitions each group used guided their decision-making, and differences between the definitions used by different actors presented additional challenges in executing the response. These findings reflect the centrality of the defining process in planning and implementing crisis medical relief efforts, and indicate significant parallels in this process between responding to disasters and large scale epidemics, suggesting similarities in the responses to these two types of crises.