Better Links, Better EIDM

By  Desyree Lotter and Natalie Rebelo Da Silva

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Panelist at the AEN Malawi roadshow

On the 8th March 2016, the Africa Evidence Network (AEN) hosted a road show in Blantyre, Malawi to promote the network and its activities to organisations in Malawi that are focused on evidence-informed-decision-making (EIDM). The AEN partnered with the Centre for Social Research (CSR) from the University of Malawi, based in Zomba to host the road show. The event was attended by 34 representatives from the private sector, NGO’s, research institutions, associations and government. The key topic discussed was the barriers that are experienced in the generation and dissemination of evidence between evidence producers and users. The Director for the Centre for Social Research (CSR), Dr. Alistair Munthali opened proceedings by welcoming all guests. He then proceeded to give a brief overview of the CSR and the AEN. Dr. Maxton Tsoka, associate research professor at the CSR and also a member of the AEN gave a 15min presentation about the AEN, highlighting the importance of the platform for evidence users and producers to come together and share information. Dr. Tsoka played a short film highlighting the EIDM work of UJ-BCURE in Malawi. Thereafter Dr. Alistair Munthali, gave an in depth presentation highlighting the work of the CSR as an example of how evidence can be used to inform decision making processes. Dr. Munthali used two examples that the CSR are currently producing evidence for. This is the effect and impact of cash transfers in Malawi and they are doing research to inform changes in girl education, focusing on evidence that speaks to age and girl education. This was followed by a panel discussion that looked at the need for reliable evidence as part of policy decision making processes in Malawi. Arguments were made regarding the various challenges faced in producing evidence; from actual physical barriers, to resource barriers and cultural barriers.

The panel discussion was lead by Mr. Rafiq Hajat, the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) in Malawi. Other panelists include Mr. Hope Chavula from the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) and Mr. Patrick Kambewu, Head of Department (Economics) at the University of Malawi. The perspectives of the NGO sector, private sector and academic sector made for an interesting debate as each sector experienced their own set of challenges. It was discovered through the debate that linkages between sectors needed to be made to strengthen access to data and information that strengthens current available evidence across sectors. Mr. Hajat put forward three key questions, (1) Why does Evidence Based Policy and Programming Matter? (2) What are the key issues surrounding Evidence Based Policy and Programming? (3) What can policymakers do to increase the use of Evidence in Policy and Programming? Mr. Chavula argued that evidence based policy is necessary and becoming more prevalent in Malawi as it moves policy away from being politically centered and brings into focus the reality and needs that must be addressed in society. He spoke from a business perspective and brought to light the need for government to invest in sectors that would boost economic productivity in Malawi. He argued that this could only be done if policy represented the state of the country and put into place measures that would support the private sector through the use of relevant and accurate evidence.

A counter argument was made in stating that the environment in Malawi does not allow for adequate evidence generation given the lack of human and financial resources and the cost of generating evidence, particularly when using consultants  to conduct research. The concept of generating evidence for policy would also imply that there is available avenues for the collection of data. The point was made that many sectors in Malawi, including government were under resourced. There is a struggle to manage their day to day affairs, never mind putting additional resources into gathering evidence. This issue of being under resourced also brought forward the point that in many developing countries such as Malawi, available evidence may not be adequate in some sectors. The question was therefore raised, ‘how does one vet for adequate evidence?’.

Dr. Munthali attempted to answer the question by providing an example of the evidence the CSR had used to make a case for improving infant nutrition and stated examples of how education in communities has vastly improved the state of infant Health. Evidence has the perception of being something that is very complicated to gather and inform various issues, particularly where issues are seen as overwhelming, such as poverty. However it is simply a case of looking at what is available to you in your sector and community. This then brought up the argument around cultural expectations and the uptake of evidence based policy within communities. In many rural areas cultural practices supersede the use of evidence and so evidence based policy doesn’t matter to the people it should really be impacting. The idea of using evidence as a means through which decision should be made is seen as a western practice. Producers of evidence experience barriers when entering rural communities and it was stated that in some cases have experienced violence. There is not enough socialization within communities as to what evidence is and the relevance of using evidence to inform decision making is. Examples where provided where some NGOs stated that they see within communities that members consider the use of such western practices as going against cultural norms and this would anger the ancestors and in extreme cases would be considered as a form of witchcraft. The question was asked ‘how does one demonstrate to people that were of this view that the generation of evidence to make changes and inform decision making was in fact a relevant and important tool for change?’.

Dr. Munthali stated that one cannot change the perspectives of all people and in also made the argument that one cannot argue against beliefs. The road show attendees argued that the more evidence is used in policy and in decision making processes, even within rural areas, the more communities will become more comfortable. The discussion then looked at the second question that asked what the key issues were that influenced evidence informed policy. It was reiterated that access to credible information was an issue and the kinds of available evidence was factor. The point was also raised around the political nature of policy in the country and that a key challenge was that evidence needed to be incorporated into policy making processes and this would only happen when there was a move away from decision makers putting their own political agendas ahead of the needs of the people. One of the delegates stated that, “…political agendas drive policy. Research networks need to be formed to drive change”. The point was also raised that policy is not created in isolation. Many factors other than the personal political agendas influence policy but concluded that policy in Africa and in Malawi was still inherently political. The final question was posed asking what could be done to policymakers, civil society and the private sector could do to increase the use of evidence? It was unanimous that producers and users of evidence needed to form stronger links. In many cases people and organisations don’t know where to start when needing accurate evidence to prove or disprove a case or make use of limited avenues that they know of and are not motivated to seek new streams for the collection of data. People in general see the production of evidence as an academic activity that is more complicated in nature to carry out. Therefore to bridge this gap, stronger networks must be formed between those who can and those who can’t – this meaning those who have the skills and resources to produce evidence and those who do not. Before the close of the event, delegates were encouraged to sign up as members to the AEN. Twenty new members were signed. The event was closed by Ms. Desyree Lotter, the Malawi project manager for UJ-BCURE, thanking all delegates as well as the CSR for their participation in the road show.