QES scholars learning about Africa’s evidence production and use

By Kartik Sharma and Peter Belesiotis

Peter Belesiotis and Kartik Sharma at the
Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) offices in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship programme funds students to travel abroad so they may engage in meaningful learning and professional experiences.  The Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) has hosted Queen Elizabeth Scholars since 2016.  Peter Belesiotis, a Queen Elizabeth Scholar in Strengthening Health Systems, and Kartik Sharma, a Queen Elizabeth Scholar in Strengthening Health and Social Systems, visited ACE in the winter of 2019.  Both are students at McMaster University, Canada and past Fellows at the McMaster Health Forum.

My time with ACE and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) has been incredibly rewarding and eye-opening. During my time here, I have had the privilege of working on several projects in the evidence-informed policy sphere. These projects have included an environmental evidence mega-map, providing assistance on a land reform evidence map, and, most notably, updating an evidence map on housing and human settlements in South Africa.

The housing and human settlements evidence map project was initiated in 2015 by the Department of Human Settlements (DHS), ACE, and DPME. Now, in 2019, the ACE and DPME are once again working with the DHS to inform decision-making in the human settlements sphere in South Africa. To this end, we have embarked on an update of the original evidence map. The purpose of updating the evidence map is to systematically produce a whole body of evidence that can be drawn on to inform policy and programmatic decisions.

To begin the update of the evidence map, I learned as much as I could about the previous evidence map as well as the motivation for revisiting this evidence map in 2019. This learning stage helped me to contextualize my work and understand its importance and potential impact. The process of updating the map began with running searches in various scientific databases to capture any evidence pieces published since 2015 (when the original map was constructed). From these searches, more than 3 000 potential records were identified. Through a systematic screening process, we identified more than 50 new evidence pieces to add to the map. All included evidence pieces were coded using a taxonomy that enables users to easily access evidence related to the intervention(s) and outcome(s) of interest to them.

Working on the update of the human settlements evidence map has allowed me to gain an appreciation for the housing and human settlements challenges that South Africa has faced in recent years. I became familiar with the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the National Development Plan, and the significant task of realizing every citizen’s constitutional right to housing. Adding to the complexity of this situation are the triple challenges (poverty, inequality, and unemployment) and the legacy of apartheid in South Africa. Needless to say, I have come to realize that human settlements policy in South Africa is very complicated, but evidence can help navigate this challenging territory.

During my time in South Africa, I was really lucky to see some of this beautiful country! I got to hike in the Drakensberg Mountains, surf in Durban, and see some incredible wildlife in Kruger National Park. I was also really fortunate to spend a week in Cape Town to learn from some of the folks at the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care. Finally, I have come to love the exciting city of Johannesburg, and I am already thinking about returning to visit all the great people I have met along the way!

Kartik Sharma

            Since joining the ACE team in late May, I have had the pleasure of contributing to two of the Centre’s ongoing projects alongside its talented and welcoming team, all while learning a great deal about the art and science of using evidence in Africa.

            ACE is proud to host the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence’s Johannesburg centre.  The Collaboration for Environmental Evidence (CEE) is a global community of scientists who cooperate to produce and enable the uptake of high-quality evidence on the environment and biodiversity.  Being the only CEE site in Africa, CEE Johannesburg has been busy producing Africa-focused outputs since its establishment in 2012.  The site’s current project is a comprehensive evidence “mega-map” that aims to synthesize all environmental research evidence and applicable grey literature specific to South Africa.  Once completed, this evidence map will be a valuable resource for researchers and policymakers alike.

Engaging with CEE Johannesburg’s mega-map has been an exciting opportunity to develop my evidence synthesis skills under the supervision of an accomplished group of researchers.  My involvement began by executing a thorough search strategy that ACE’s team developed.  Our efforts were particularly focused on: 1) waste; 2) agriculture; 3) biodiversity; 4) air quality; 5) land; 6) forestry; 7) fisheries; 8) mining; 9) water; 10) pollution; 11) oceans and coasts; 12) climate; 13) energy; 14) sustainable development; and 15) environmental actions.  At present, we are busy screening and coding our search results – over 165 000 records! – and are eager to present preliminary findings on evidence specific to South Africa’s Gauteng region at the 1st Annual Gauteng Environmental Research Symposium in September 2019.

In addition to working on CEE Johannesburg’s mega-map, I have helped prepare an evidence framework and synthesis on effective fact-checking in Nigeria and South Africa.  These were requisitioned by AfricaCheck, a non-profit independent member of the International Fact-Checking Network dedicated to stopping the spread of misinformation and disinformation in Africa.  Mis- and disinformation pose a threat to countries around the world; however, they are especially important to combat in Africa, where mis- and disinformation have been known to prompt violence and damage nascent and sometimes fragile democracies.  It was hugely rewarding to be involved in a project that has the potential to inform AfricaCheck’s efforts to improve the quality of available information in Africa and it deepened my understanding of the regional challenges that mis- and disinformation present on the continent.

Aside from learning at ACE, it has been an honour to engage with Johannesburg’s vibrant culture (and food scene!) – especially around the Melville neighbourhood – throughout the time I have spent in South Africa.  I’m looking forward to taking in more of the sights and sounds the country has to offer before heading back home in late August.

Peter Belesiotis