Growing the Evidence –Informed Decision-Making (EIDM) Community

By Precious Motha

July

(Phil Davies speaking at the AEN regional meeting)

On 3 June 2015, the Africa Evidence Network (AEN), in collaboration with the Anglophone Africa Centre for Learning, Evaluation and Results (CLEAR-AA), held its 2015 regional meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa.  At this event, CLEAR-AA launched its “Eval-Africa Seminar Series”, which are aimed at promoting evaluation thought leadership in Africa. In attendance were evaluation professionals, academics, government officials and civil society from Africa and Europe, with a majority South African representation. The event took place at the Auckland Lodge guesthouse in Auckland Park, Johannesburg – a venue that provided a tranquil setting with delicious “homemade” meals. As guests arrived, they were welcomed with freshly baked muffins and tea/coffee to warm them up on a cold winter day – thus guests were systematically prepared for the more exciting proceedings of the day.

First on the programme was a session by CLEAR-AA, which marked the launch of its “Eval-Africa Seminar Series” with a presentation on the “Challenges of evidence synthesis”.  The session had three panelists, which included Dr Phillip Davies from the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), Dr Taryn Young from the Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care and Cochrane SA, and Dr Stephen Taylor from the Department of Basic Education/Stellenbosch University. A video of the whole session is available here.

The AEN regional meeting followed the CLEER-AA session in the afternoon hours – that was after the guests were served with some delicious, appetite-provoking meals. This meeting was chaired by the director of CLEAR-AA, Dr Laila Smith, and commenced with attendees introducing themselves. As AEN coordinator, I was very excited to see new faces, i.e. people that were not yet members of the AEN, and my hope was that this meeting would encourage these colleagues to officially join our network. In line with my expectation, there was indeed a drastic increase in membership sign-ups, with AEN membership shooting from 300 plus before the meeting, to more than 400 members after the meeting. At the start of this meeting, the Deputy Director of the UJ-BCURE programme, Dr Yvonne Erasmus, welcomed the guests to this first AEN meeting in 2015. Her presentation opened with a short film about the AEN. The film provides a background to the University of Johannesburg’s Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE) Programme and the establishment of the AEN in 2012, whose core aim is to build lasting bridges between community of researchers and policy-makers. This is achieved through linking people and activities across various initiatives, organizations and fields – people that are working to produce and use better evidence. The Network brings together a grouping of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers from universities, NGOs and governments.

Dr Erasmus’ presentation provided a short summary of the network’s progress since the last annual general meeting (AGM) in November 2014. Highlights included the increasing membership numbers which are over now 300. These members are represented in sixteen African countries and eight countries outside the continent. Some of these members are experts in different fields, and are actively involved in evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). We know of many new collaborations as a result of the network, and are working together more information on this encouraging fruition of our work.

Dr Erasmus also shared AEN’s resources, which aim to strengthen and create a sustainable community of like-minded people. The resources include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Publishing of  latest content on evidence and policy through the AEN website;
  • A monthly newsletter which features local and international news;
  • The promotion of engagement and knowledge sharing on social media e.g Twitter @Africa-evidence;
  • Hosting seminars that promote evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM); and
  • Hosting of colloquia (e.g. the November 2014 colloquium and the upcoming colloquium in 2016)

In our regional meeting we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Philip Davies from 3ie, who heads 3ie’s London office and is responsible for leading 3ie’s programme of synthesis and reviews, and impact evaluation work in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His presentation focused on ‘Making evidence accessible and relevant for policy and practice’. The presentation highlighted the importance of evidence-informed policymaking which entails using the best available evidence from research and other sources. For example, AEN’s guest blog in June 2015, Ed Young, provided a list of online systems that assist in accessing evidence. Accessing this evidence helps in knowing tested and tried effective interventions for different outcomes that target specific groups of people. Further, this evidence should be able to reveal the conditions under which these interventions are achievable.  Dr Davies argued that according to efficacy studies, things work under test conditions. However, when rolled out in the real world, they might not work. Therefore, it is important to identify the features, factors and variables which make the interventions work for different people in different contexts.

Also, time span becomes vitally important in measuring the outcomes of the interventions. Dr Davies stressed that a lot of issues that are addressed in policy are medium to long-term and very long-term. He made an example of reducing regeneration poverty where he noted that it will be interesting to know whether in South Africa the programmes that were rolled out in 1994 are successful or met certain targets after 21 years.  In this regard, he highlighted the importance of evaluating the progress of such interventions along the way and measure the outcomes realistically. This affects the cost of the programmes. At the moment there is not enough evidence on cost of programmes. Currently 3ie is leading a movement on doing evaluation on cost estimation of programmes. According to Dr Davies, this is critical information that treasury and tax payers will want to know. In a nut shell, this is not only about evidence, but integrating evidence with research evidence, evaluation evidence, and review evidence with the people who are responsible for the programmes. Additionally, the decision-maker’s knowledge, skills, experience, expertise and judgment play a big role in making evidence come to life.

Thanks to all of you who attended the event on the 3rd of June. We’re planning further meetings for later in the year and hope to welcome you there.