Promoting the value of useful and used research

The Africa Evidence Network at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, recently launched the first annual Africa Evidence Leadership Award to honour and recognise those who have increased awareness of evidence-informed decision-making in Africa.

“There is a lot of good work being done by Africans for Africa and our hope is not only to celebrate those who are giving back but to also encourage the spirit of Ubuntu in others,” said Africa Evidence Network (AEN) Senior Manager Siziwe Ngcwabe. “We need to acknowledge the innovative leadership in evidence-informed decision-making happening in Africa and showcase it to the world.”

“Award winners are leaders in this sector, they have produced impactful research, so let’s show it off.”

Research evidence producers and research evidence users from government, civil society or academia who are dedicated to using research evidence when making decisions are all invited to apply for the award. The award, valued at US$4,000, will be presented at Evidence 2018, the biennial conference of the AEN, this September in Pretoria, South Africa. The conference will focus on four priority topics in Africa: quality education, communicable diseases, climate resilience, and good governance.

AEN came into being in 2012 and is now under the aegis of the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at the University of Johannesburg. Prior to the advent of the centre, the network’s secretariat was funded by Britain’s Department for International Development as part of the University of Johannesburg’s programme to Build Capacity to Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE). ACE employs a staff of 10, including a director, evidence evaluation specialists and researchers, as well as Ngcwabe who heads up AEN.

ACE’s stated vision, shared by AEN, is to “reduce poverty and inequality in our region by increasing the production and application of research evidence that is both useful and used”.

Informing policy and practice

ACE itself produces research evidence with the aim of informing policy and practice across the continent, as well as supporting the production of systematic reviews and evidence syntheses by others. It also ensures that what is produced is responsive to local and regional needs, while creating local, national, regional and international partnerships to oversee the application of the research.

AEN came into being as a structured response to a perceived need. “There is a lot of evidence produced in Africa by universities and other institutions but no way to measure it or to see if the end product is being used,” said Ngcwabe. “Evidence findings that come out of research can be of use in a variety of development programmes.”

Ngcwabe said AEN links people and activities across various initiatives, organisations and in different fields working to produce and use evidence in Africa. “Our function is to bridge the gap between research and the users so that all the reports and papers that are produced don’t just sit on shelves and gather dust.”

“We want to bridge that gap between government and civil society and also the gap between potential funders and NGOs. For example, in the field of education we know of programmes that work and we point potential funders towards those.”

Membership of the network is free and the current membership of 1,300 (and rising) includes researchers, university policy-makers, consultants and members from the private sector, civil society and government, including members of parliament, local councillors and civil servants.

“We have members across all sectors,” said Ngcwabe, who emphasised AEN’s focus on bringing people together: “They need to be aligned and not working in silos. They need to be sharing and consuming evidence.”

AEN membership provides opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing in the evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) field and the network’s activities are focused on creating and promoting links between EIDM practitioners within Africa, and internationally. To that end AEN distributes a monthly newsletter and publishes regular policy briefs featuring recent African evidence products for free distribution via their website.

As well as holding various networking events and regular workshops on evidence-informed decision-making hosted by UJ-BCURE, AEN is also involved with the science café programme implemented by the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNet), held at informal venues such as coffee shops and restaurants. ZeipNet is one of 60 similar networks with whom AEN collaborates and shares information.

Africa-wide reach

AEN works all over Africa and in different sectors, said Ngcwabe. “We are predominantly active in Southern and East Africa. That is partly a language issue as North and West are French speaking countries.”

To circumvent the language barrier, AEN has linked up with the African Evaluation Associate (AfrEA), which works in the region. “We frequently collaborate with other organisations that are well known in a particular region – it’s easier through collaboration.”

“Through AfrEA we can assist different sectors to talk to each other about research that is out there – that is our niche and our area of success.”

“We need to show and share our work in North Africa and West Africa. Government officials can be wary in the beginning but when they understand how it works and what we have to offer, they realise they can apply it in their day to day work.”

Issues of leadership and governance are among primary concerns in Africa, according to Ngcwabe. “There are so many leadership problems in Africa at government level, in the private sector and at the NGO level, which also has leadership and staffing issues. There is a lack of efficient governance and strategic planning; staff not being used effectively and a lack of proper monitoring and evaluation.”

This is where AEN can tip the balance towards the application of good research at both government and local level in project management. “How to take it home and bring it in within budget, for example. For big projects, to make sure they are using the right tools.”

AEN is currently developing a new strategy plan for the next five years. “We are taking stock, looking at our successes and our challenges and seeing where we want to go,” said Ngcwabe, who is confident AEN is on the right track. “Our brand is strong and people know what we are doing.”