There has been tremendous growth in the number of studies on sexual and reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two decades. Notably, there has been an increase in research documenting what works in improving adolescents’ health and wellbeing.
However, the use of findings from these studies to inform the development of policies is low. For example, research shows that educating young people about their sexuality and giving them access to contraceptive methods has lifelong benefits. But few sub-Saharan African countries have enacted laws or policies that follow through on the evidence.
As a result of this inaction, adolescents continue to experience early unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and other poor health outcomes.
There are many obstacles to the use of research in policy making. Researchers and policymakers rarely interact with each other. Policymakers are, therefore, unaware of the latest research findings. Many policymakers in sub-Saharan Africa are not trained to conduct or use research. Researchers often communicate their findings in technical language. They rarely assess the evidence needs of policymakers or involve them in the research processes. And researchers have a limited understanding of the socio-political processes involved in policymaking.
As researchers, we know that studying social problems and publishing findings do not guarantee that policies will draw on the evidence. The changes that society needs, such as preventing adolescent pregnancies, will not happen until researchers can influence policy. To do this, there are some important steps to follow.
The steps described here are based on the model the African Population and Health Research Center is using in its Challenging the Politics of Social Exclusion project. They also emerge from a review of other models such as INCLUDE, a knowledge sharing platform hosted by the African Studies Centre. The INCLUDE platform was created as a place to share knowledge that can lead to evidence-based development policies and programmes in Africa.
Challenging the politics of social exclusion
At the African Population and Health Research Center we are implementing an innovative four-year project that began in 2018. The project was sparked by shortcomings in sexual and reproductive rights services.
At inception, we brought together policymakers and civil society organisations to define a research agenda on these issues for the sub-Saharan Africa region. The priorities that were identified guide our ongoing research. They are: abortion incidence, the effect of laws and policies in reducing maternal deaths, and how to get support from religious and traditional leaders for safe abortion and care.
Through our partnerships with regional economic communities, we also train policymakers on the use of research. Further, we have established a rapid response mechanism to provide evidence to policymakers. Policy change in our three focal areas will take time. But we believe our investment in building the culture of using evidence in policy will help bring the change we want.
The project is ongoing, but we have already learnt more about how scientists can use their research outcomes to influence policy.
Relationship building: Researchers and academic institutions must establish and nourish relationships with policy actors. This will build an understanding of the policymaking process. Researchers will know more about what policymakers need, why and when.
Needs assessment: Researchers should engage with policymakers, civil society organisations, funders, government agencies and politicians to identify policy priorities and relevant evidence needs. Together they can come up with research questions to ensure that studies are relevant. But the engagement must continue during and after the data collection. Policy actors can play a part in analysing and sharing the findings. Researchers must begin with policy impact in mind.
Mutual capacity strengthening: Policymakers are not experts in interpreting academic literature. Researchers should not assume that they can translate scientific evidence into policy and practice. So researchers have to identify and document how to help them – through regular training, for example. It’s up to researchers to show policymakers the value of evidence-informed policy.
Researchers can also learn from the vast experience of policymakers, especially in understanding the policy landscape and how to engage them. Thus, capacity strengthening must be mutual with both the researchers and the policymakers gaining valuable knowledge and insights.
Communicating to a variety of audiences: The language of scientific publication is not always clear to policymakers. Researchers must translate knowledge so that a wider audience can understand it. One place to start is writing and publishing a short summary of the research in plain language for the media. Policymakers need summarised documents with less scientific jargon.
Researchers as activists: In the words of South African academic Linda-Gail Bekker:
being a scientist isn’t enough – you have to be an activist too.
Researchers must use their voice to advocate for evidence uptake, especially in cases where there is an obvious denial of scientific evidence. Scientists who engage with a larger audience can help dispel myths and misconceptions about scientific discovery.
Establishing a rapid response mechanism: Lastly, establishing a rapid response mechanism is important to provide timely and up-to-date evidence to policymakers as their needs emerge. Through the Challenging the Politics of Social Exclusion project, the African Population and Health Research Center is rapidly using evidence to inform policy debates. More research institutes should do the same.
Read more: COVID-19: how The Conversation helps build bridges between research and policy
What success would look like
We believe that the uptake of evidence in policy and decision making is key for inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development. Evidence will help decision makers to do what is proven to work, reducing wastage of limited public resources.
Effective and efficient use of resources will reassure citizens and help build trust in governments. These are key ingredients for sustainable development.
But achieving this will require researchers to collaborate more with policymakers in evidence generation, translation and use.