Evidence 2016: What an exciting and productive conference

by Ruth Stewart and Precious Motha

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Evidence 2016 graphic recording is by Nicolene Louw from Fine-Line

Our Africa Evidence Network team at the University of Johannesburg is still buzzing from the excitement of the successful Evidence 2016 conference held in Pretoria in late September. We welcomed 145 people from across the continent to the CSIR’s International Convention Centre for an event sponsored by the City of Tshwane, 3ie and the DFID funded UJ-BCURE programme.

The conference covered three themes engage, understand and impact. Delegates from 17 countries enjoyed 17 plenary presentations, 23 abstract presentations, 36 landscape maps & oral poster presentations and 2 training workshops. The event itself was seamlessly organised by ConfSA, who did us proud.

There was an energy from across the community for the conference’s critical engagement with the challenges of ensuring evidence is both useful and used, and the innovative solutions proposed by this ‘made in Africa’ network. The inclusion in the conference of public servants from 14 governments across Africa, as well as members of national and international NGOs, and members of civil society groups kept the discussion focussed on real world problems. Our conference co-chair, Dr Shanil Haricharan, in his closing plenary encouraged us to continue this important emphasis and challenged us to focus more in our next events on the big challenges that face the African continent. Delegates from major organisations and networks, including AfrEA, SAMEA, 3ie, the Hewlett Foundation, Joanna Briggs, the Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations, and many others, ensured we explored questions of importance to their communities supporting the AEN as more than a network of individuals, but also a network of networks.

Our AGM included discussion of how the AEN might grow and expand it’s services to better meet its members. A database of expertise was discussed, as well as online discussion forums. We also spent time exploring how the AEN secretariat could give a voice to the African evidence community on a global stage. Delegates encouraged Ruth, as chair of the network, to challenge the organisation of Evidence Synthesis International, and the related Global Evidence Synthesis Initiative, to be more inclusive and considerate of African voices in their structures and their activities. At the What Works Global Summit which followed on from Evidence 2016 in London the last week of September, Ruth successfully negotiated time on the agendas of key meetings and with key individuals to represent the networks views. Whilst the outcomes are still to be seen of Ruth’s calls for greater inclusivity and for an African voice at the table of these global initiatives, the leaders of these initiatives paid attention to what was said, and gave encouraging responses.

Dissemination from the conference was wide ranging, with Nicolene, our fantastic artist, drawing sessions live and displaying her work in the foyer of the conference. On day 1 our hashtag #Evidence2016 repeatedly trended on twitter, and each days activities were blogged by AEN member Ameer Hohlfed on behalf of the Network. Following the conference we have received requests for blogs and articles from international journalists, and requests for updates and meetings from those unable to attend the conference in person.

The conference discussed our new ‘brand’ of Evidence+ events which will take place across the continent in the intervening years between our main biennial Evidence conferences and plans are well under way for one or even two events in Kampala Uganda in partnership with AfrEA and with Makerere University. Perhaps most exciting, by the end of the 3 days of Evidence 2016, we had generated enough interest and energy that we were able to announce the dates of Evidence 2018 – to be held back in Pretoria on 25th-28th September 2018.

It was our privilege to host this exciting and productive event last month. To those unable to attend, we hope you were able to join in via social media. Presentations, blogs, reports, photos and more will continue to be updated via our website. For those who were able to join us, thank you for your contributions, energy and friendship. We hope to see you all again soon.