By Ruth Stewart (AEN) and Beryl Leach (3ie)
Knowledge and information sharing are two of the main reasons people join the Africa Evidence Network (AEN). More specifically, demand for more capacity development for evidence production and use comes up again and again in our webinars, in blogs from our members and in what they share with us via the AEN website and newsletter. We see this demand in the high turnout for workshops at our biennial AEN conference. Yet, people we talk with are frustrated with the types of capacity development on offer in our region.
Frustration with current capacity ‘building’
3ie started exploring this apparent disconnect between supply and demand at the AfrEA conference in Kampala in March 2017. Participants in a capacity-building workshop thought that training was too short; too often only in PowerPoint-based formats with no ongoing support afterwards; and was most often tailored to the needs of a project donor. While the number of evaluation post-graduate degree programmes is increasing in Africa, there are still too few, the curricula and quality vary, and learning about evidence production is not joined up well with effective use.
Participants also pointed to the bias inherent in the term, ‘building’. It implies that someone from the outside knows more than those receiving the information. There is no sense of acknowledging what people do know. It is this sentiment that drives interest in shifting from a ‘building’ mindset to consider ‘development’ or ‘co-production or co-creation.’
3ie, which is a member of the AEN, shared this feedback with AEN staff and other AEN members and partners, including CLEAR AA and AfrEA. Together, we then decided to find out more by co-hosting a dialogue with capacity development practitioners and donors at the Global Evidence Summit in Cape Town in September 2017. The messages were similar to the first meeting: donor priorities for capacity building are not necessarily aligned with user needs or ways of working; and capacity providers need to communicate better with each other and collaborate more.
Our latest meeting took place at Evidence 2018 in Pretoria in September 2018. We heard another important message: capacity development should not be seen or offered as an end in and of itself.
Seeds of solutions
These rich dialogues demonstrate that our members and colleagues know what doesn’t work with current approaches, within which are the seeds for how we can do much better:
- Capacity building agendas and priorities are being driven by funders and ‘tick-box’, short-term approaches.
- Funders prefer funding training provided by ‘big name’ institutions and staff in the Global North. A recurring criticism is that approaches do not sufficiently take into account existing expertise in Africa and in the Global South more broadly.
- Major funders seem to be favouring evidence use capacity development for policymakers, overlooking and underfunding support for other key stakeholders, such as parliament and civil society.
- The majority of capacity initiatives are short-term trainings, geared to some specific set of skills and knowledge, not necessarily adapted to local contexts.
- Very few offerings use adult-learning approaches, or offer localised ongoing support, or see capacity development as co-creating improvements.
- Providers compete with each other instead of collaborating to offer improved capacity development approaches or to challenge funders to support longer term, more embedded approaches as a regular component.
- AEN, the Africa Centre for Evidence, AFIDEP, GINKS, ZEIPNET and others in the DFID-funded Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence programmes, have gained a lot of valuable expertise in delivering evidence use capacity development using new approaches that work and
- There are some great regional initiatives we can learn from: CLEAR AA is leading an innovative collaborative initiative to set standards for and harmonise evaluation training and education that has the potential to improve quality and produce more holistic, contextually adapted offerings.
Next steps start by dreaming big together
We sense momentum building for a major opportunity to be part of building new initiatives that are Africa-led, collaborative and that use evidence-informed effective methods. We are dreaming big about how the AEN can continue to be a leader and shape contributions to ensure real progress in the next five years. Over the next 18 months, you will see more blogs, webinars and other communication that supports our efforts taking these dialogues forward.
At the AfrEA 2019 conference next month, we will recap what we have learned, reflect on it and see how we can shift concretely toward solutions and actions. AEN will then develop a plan to move from dialogue to action, capped off by an action-oriented capacity development strand at Evidence 2020. We expect the plan to include building more collaboration and communication in the network and with our partners. We see an opportunity for AEN to be a collective voice in engaging donors in supporting the changes we see we need. If you are attending AfrEA 2019, please join us at our next dialogue, (which is listed as a workshop), Ruts, traps and moving forward in a new direction together on capacity development: lessons learned about what to avoid and building consensus for approaches that work. We will be reflecting, discussing and planning our run-up to Evidence 2020.
We had a webinar on capacity sharing for the use of evidence on 26 February 2019. We want to hear your dreams, ideas and comments on what AEN members can do together to improve capacity development and how to have a truly inspiring, innovative and action-oriented capacity development strand at Evidence 2020. Click here to listen to the recording and join the conversation.