Building networks for evidence-informed policy in Africa

Networks of researchers and policymakers promoting research evidence in policy are gradually gaining importance in many African countries. The first colloquium of the Africa Evidence Network brought together representatives from these networks, policymakers, practitioners and researchers to discuss the future of evidence-informed policy in the region.

Evidence-informed policymaking is gaining importance in several African countries. Networks of researchers and policymakers in Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Benin and Zimbabwe are working assiduously to ensure credible evidence reaches government officials in time and are also building the capacity of policymakers to use the evidence effectively. The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) is one such body working with governments in South Africa and Malawi. It held its first colloquium in November 2014 in Johannesburg.


A network of over 300 policymakers, researchers and practitioners, AEN is now emerging as a regional body in its own right. The network began in December 2012 with a meeting of 20 African representatives at 3ie’s Dhaka Colloquium of Systematic Reviews in International Development. “There were a number of delegates from Africa at the Dhaka colloquium who were in some way associated with systematic review and evidence-based decision-making organisations,” recalls Ruth Stewart, the AEN chairwoman. “We agreed to set up a network to share information, experiences and ideas in the belief that in working together we can help to make evidence-informed policy and practice a reality across the region,” she adds The network’s host, University of Johannesburg Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE), is one of five projects funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to find out how to build skills, knowledge and systems that will allow policymakers and practitioners in low- and middle-income countries to access, appraise and use rigorous evidence (watch video clip). The UJ-BCURE programme involves landscape reviews, mentorships and workshops, says Issac Choge, country manager, UJ-BCURE.


In the recent past, a number of such initiatives to promote evidence-informed policy have been set up in the region. These include the DFID-funded Development Research Uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa that is creating research uptake capacities in 24 universities, in part by helping to create a larger pool of professional research uptake managers. Campbell, Cochrane and Environmental Evidence collaborations are generating and presenting evidence in a format that policymakers can access. The African Institute for Development Policy is working to strengthen evidence for health policymaking in Kenya and Malawi. And the VakaYiko project is working with civil servants in Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa to build their capacity to use research evidence in policies.

Government representatives are calling for more research-based evidence in their decision-making. Walusungu Kayira, chief economist at the Department of Local Government and Rural Development, Government of Malawi, talked of the need for resources and capacity building for evaluation at the local government level. “Monitoring and evaluation systems at district level are still in formative stages with regard to capacity of staff, data collection and analysis and other resources,” he said in his keynote address at the AEN Colloquium.

Collette Clark from the Department of Public Service and Administration, Government of South Africa, called for government departments to be research champions. Speaking at the AEN Colloquium, she said, “Data collection should be a core competency of frontline public sector employees”. Some departments in the South African government have introduced research units and others are building partnerships with universities. One of the hallmarks of evidence-informed policy has been the change in government policy on early childhood development as a result of an impact evaluation, says Matodzi Amisi of the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, Government of South Africa.

The Government of Malawi has set up the Knowledge Translation Platform to bridge researchers and government officials. It informs government officials about the research findings on particular issues and tells researchers the kinds of studies the policymakers need. “This has proved to be effective particularly in the case of HIV prevention and care, where the Malawi government introduced voluntary medical male circumcision based on research evidence,” says Collins Mitambo, national knowledge translation coordinator, Ministry of Health, Government of Malawi.

Policymaking is fraught with uncertainties and political considerations. Research evidence competes with many other factors in government decision making. “Even if we build the capacity of government officials, it may not be effective. We’re competing with lobbying groups and traditional forms of decision making,” says Ekwaro Obuku of the African Centre for Systematic Reviews and Knowledge Translation at the Makerere University, Uganda.

Government programme managers often encounter situations where “evidence has to support the ideas and beliefs of policymakers,” says Shanil Haricharan of the Department of National Treasury, Government of South Africa. “Sometimes a politician has a hunch and it leads to the design and implementation of a policy. That’s why we can’t explain results,” says Ian Goldman of the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the office of the Presidency, Government of South Africa.

“We’re operating in a limited environment. There’s no magic bullet in this field,” explains John Lavis of McMaster University. “Capacity building can help researchers and intermediaries communicate research and be better commissioners and users of research, which is an important factor. But it is one of many factors in both the demand and supply side,’ he adds.

Networks like AEN are playing an important role. “There are questions about the tangible outputs of a network, but if learning is built in a coordinated manner, it can be helpful,’ says Lavis. The Evidence Informed Policy Network (EVIPNet) is a case in point. Seven African countries have been learning from each other over a period of time and have made different decisions because of the network. The EVIPNet rapid-response service in Uganda -- where you can call and ask for evidence and it’s delivered within a few days -- drew the attention of Burkina Faso and Cameroon. McMaster University in Canada has also set up a similar rapid-response programme that responds to urgent requests for health system evidence from policymakers and other stakeholders. As Lavis says, these networks provide unbelievable learning at very low cost.

The Policy Buddies project is another initiative that has fostered friendships among policymakers and researchers and led to a demand for evidence in South Africa and Cameroon. Taryn Young, director, Centre for Evidence-based Health Care, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, says, “We’ve witnessed a spill-over effect where we have policymakers who are not part of the programme approach us for research evidence,”.
The exchange of information and experiences is AEN’s strength. As 3ie’s Deo-Gracias Houndolo puts it, “Evidence is context specific and evidence networks should also be driven by contextual similarities. AEN has a feature of ownership that can help nurture the production and use of evidence to inform policy in both Francophone and Anglophone Africa.’

The AEN members attending the colloquium held their first annual general meeting (AGM). Beryl Leach, 3ie deputy director and head of policy, advocacy and communication and UJ-BCURE advisory group member, kicked off the AGM by sharing helpful insights into successful network building in Africa, based on her six years of building a Sub-Saharan Africa regional network and national advocacy coalitions in East Africa. The talk inspired good discussions about what type of network members want and helped clarify what they will be doing between now and the next AGM in 2016.

AEN publishes a free newsletter. Membership is free and open to anyone working on promoting evidence-informed development policymaking and practice in Africa.

(Paromita Mukhopadhyay is a Communication Officer at 3ie)

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