Ethnography at the first WHO Skin-NTDS meeting

Dr Gem Aellah, Research Fellow with the 5S Foundation, shares some of her thoughts after being given permission to conduct ethnographic research at the first WHO Skin NTDs meeting that took place in March 2023.

 Ethnography of a meeting means lots of fieldnotes.
 Ethnography of a meeting means lots of field notes.

I was lucky enough to be given permission by the WHO to conduct ethnographic observations at the first WHO Skin-NTDS global meeting in Geneva. Looking at the agenda a few days before I realised that this would be a jam-packed week, full of 15 minute presentations, few side-meetings, little time for discussion and – as became the running joke of the meeting – NO COFFEE BREAKS!

Coffee breaks are the stuff of conference ethnography, the small moments where you can observe people reflecting on the day’s events, and gauge the tones and temper of the meeting. They are also part of the conference cultural rituals that bring people together and help them become a specific group.

So, at first, I was quite worried that I would struggle to find much to observe. However, I soon realised that despite a smaller ‘backstage’ than I was expecting, there was still lots to observe – as well as some late afternoon ‘secret’ coffee breaks and chats taking place behind the auditorium while the main meeting continued inside.

One of the most striking things I observed was the value that attendees placed on themselves – and their diseases – ‘being here’ as an objective in itself, regardless of the actual content of the meeting.

As one of the WHO organisers said at the end: ‘The end of one meeting is the start of another’. It was clear that many people had come in order to make sure they could break into, or maintain their place in that chain. For example, to my initial surprise the Chair of the Global Albinism Alliance was in attendance. Skin-NTDs was a new concept for them. They had been invited through a chance conversation with a member of WHO NTD department at another international meeting and came along to see if skin-cancer in people with Albinism living in tropical countries could one day join the skin-NTDs club. I learnt from them the importance of asking a question in the meeting: ‘the actual question you ask matters less than the opportunity of letting people know you are there and who you are.’

As well as observing, I also managed to fit in person in depth interview that would have been impossible otherwise, as well as a fascinating impromptu focus group discussion with people instrumental in getting mycetoma recognised as an NTD. Listening to them remember and reminisce together about their experiences of lobbying World Health Assembly delegates close to where it happened was a lovely ethnographic experience.

You can find out more about Gem’s research interest by visiting her academic profile here.

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