This week brought about the annual meeting of my department’s joint coordinating committee. Since TDR is a “special program,” it is co-sponsored by the World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP, and the WHO. The joint coordinating board (JCB) is thus made up of representatives from these organizations as well as from different countries that participate in TDR activities. It’s not the most exciting of conferences, but it is very important, since it’s one of the few times all these reps can come together to make sure TDR is doing what it’s supposed to be doing and that everyone’s on the same page.
Somehow, I ended up being photographer for this event. Despite involving a lot of running around, it was a lot of fun – allowing me to play with a new camera and giving me a tool to fight social awkwardness with. I also got to help with some web testing, which was surprisingly fascinating.
Anyway, one of my tasks involved getting “official” photos of the delegations with their nameplates – my least favorite part, because I hate asking people for things, and these people were important people. Plus, asking a stranger for their photo is just kind of awkward. I put it off until the last minute, and when I was down to my last chance I walked up to a delegate from a, well, stereotypically unfriendly country.
He quietly allowed me to take his photo, and then, something amazing happened. In nearly-whispered English, pulled out his cell phone and said,
“Now, will you take a picture for my family?”
With a shy but clearly proud smile, he made sure I included his official country nameplate in the shot and thanked me.
Suddenly, everyone wanted in on this. The delegate from Ghana agreed to a photo, “But only if you include my new friend,” he said, grabbing the delegate from Comoros. Spain, Peru, and Panama hammed it up, wanting to know when they could get a copy of the photo. “We don’t care if we’re ugly,” they joked. “We’re old friends.” Just like that, this intimidating group of delegates became real, humble, dorky people who loved a good selfie.
The day after the conference, I mentioned this to my supervisor. “That’s the problem,” he said. “At these things, everyone is so terrified of doing something stupid that they just stuff themselves up and keep quiet. We forget that they’re all just human under it all. A good leader in that kind of situation is someone who can tell a tasteful joke, who can get everyone comfortable enough to get the real work done.”
This made me think back to my experience at the World Health Assembly in May. The whole conference was fascinating, but at many times my fellow interns and I found ourselves frustrated with the amount of time dedicated to tradition and protocol – the real action seemed stilted by these regiments. But reflecting on it, I can see where these traditions – the formal addresses, the coffee and tea breaks, the inane amount of time spent on print material and agendas – may also have practical benefits. When you’re assembling 196 member states, as in the case of WHA, with a possibility of over 100 different languages, customs, mindsets, and agendas, you need something to level the playing field. Too much pomp restricts movement; just enough pomp lets people relax and meet on a mutually established ground of tradition.
That’s been one of the coolest lessons at the WHO – learning that these are all just real people. Yes, that might sound silly, but it’s true. The coworker with two PhDs and an MD. The coworker who spent their whole life doing field research in Guinea. The coworker who just got back from running an Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone. The coworker who speaks five languages. The delegates, advisors, ministers of health. These are global health rockstars – it’s hard not to be intimidated by them.
But work here for a bit, and learn things, like how this coworker was up until 2am making a surprise birthday cake for her daughter, and that coworker spilled a full cup of coffee on himself this morning. You get to hear the Director General of WHO herself (semi)-joke in front of a formal meeting at the WHA that she needed rollerblades to get to all the events she was expected to attend. (Moments later she asked, “Where is Kofi [Annan]? He left? Oh, he must have rollerblades too!").
You get to take cell phone pics of delegates, who will return to their homes and show it to their spouses and children, saying, “Look, I was here. I was a part of something good, something big.”