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Anthropology and global health: how to stay true to yourself/ -discipline

By Sara Van Belle
on September 18, 2015

Last week, I attended the MAGic2015 conference at the University of Sussex (UK). Social anthropologists convened to discuss “Anthropology and Global Health: interrogating theory, policy and practice”.  (I will spare you my talk which was about methodology – in case you’re interested, we can discuss it someday over a good glass of wine).

Social anthropologists and kindred souls shared (sometimes eerie) stories on doing long term fieldwork during the Ebola epidemic, working for WHO, DFID or other global health actors. For me, it all happened at a distance, being pregnant, but the discussions brought back memories of my stay in Sierra Leone, which I visited a long time ago in the aftermath of the war. There was no electricity at the time, even in the capital, the streets were lit by candlelight. In the rural area I visited, the first line health facilities and the district hospital were in a terrible state, compared to other LIC.

At the event, Dr Sylvain Faye, a rather famous Senegalese sociologist, shared his unease of feeling torn between staying true to his discipline and being “instrumental” in the Ebola response. Anthropologists were mainly deployed as communication specialists to interact with and mobilize the communities for safe burial practices, food distribution and contact tracing. The main objective was to overcome ‘community resistance’ (sic). Faye even used the term ‘resistance-lifting committees’, which tells you all you need to know.

Faye questioned concepts such as ‘community mobilization’ or ‘participation’. According to him, in the Ebola response, one seemed to be at times working with an ‘ideal type’ of community representative (contracted individually by the coordination team), rather than with the real thing – the locally lived experience. Together with Melissa Leach, director of IDS, he called  for a critical anthropology of the Ebola response, analyzing community initiatives, but also the responses of the global health actors themselves. For some anthropologists, the (almost professional ethical) questions they face while doing long term fieldwork become very personal – as (reflexive) engagement is what good anthropological fieldwork requires.

Anthropologists felt fortified by the recognition bestowed on them by the global health community in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic. The Ebola response Anthropology platform was widely viewed as being instrumental in the UK’s ebola response, for example. But at the same time, the global health praise left a somewhat bitter taste for quite a few.  Some reckoned maybe it is time to reconsider anthropological practice: how to be relevant in a global health rapid response while also staying engaged with locally lived realities – linking local power and wisdom to a swift global response. Faye argued we need to be “co-disciplinary” not “pluri-disciplinary”, Leach called for the building of local social science capacity…

In short, there is work to do.

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