Strengthening research systems in Africa: Little saplings come to life

By Lucia Loffreda, 13/08/19

Back in April, we announced the start of a ten-month study of research capacity strengthening in low- and medium-income countries (LMICs) for the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Now more than halfway through our project, we’re delighted to share the findings from a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA), a review of over 220 studies on interventions to strengthen research systems and organisations.

The REA forms part of DFID’s Strengthening Research Institutions in Africa programme worth £20 million, and the findings will also inform the broader research capacity strengthening work of DFID’s Research and Evidence Division. We hope that the REA can help DFID continue to invest in LMICs research in a way that is effective and aligned with national research and development priorities.

The REA helped pinpoint where these points of intervention might be. In terms of research systems, the study showed that more can be done to:

  • encourage LMIC governments to invest in research as a vehicle for national development;
  • develop a coherent policy framework to support the expansion of research capacity; and
  • align research with national needs and priorities to inform national policy.

When it comes to strengthening research organisations, the literature highlighted the need to:

  • improve research management in universities, specifically in terms of grants, finances and monitoring and evaluation;
  • incentivise scholars to conduct research in-country to tackle the brain drain phenomenon; and
  • improve digital research infrastructure in to support the production, management and dissemination of research.

The key message of the REA, however, is that the issues affecting research systems in LMICs are interconnected and we can see that progress on one issue is limited if taken in isolation from the broader context. Many research capacity interventions in the past focused on training of individuals, overlooking the national research context. As a result, some of those interventions lacked long-term sustainability.

These insights helped us frame the second part of the project, an assessment of the research needs in seven Sub-Saharan African countries which is currently underway. Guided by the insights of the REA, our team of associates (Consort’s Andrew Chamberlain and SARIMA’s Nelisha Naidoo) embarked on a journey across Sub-Saharan Africa to hear from stakeholders at local research institutions how international funders could best support research capacity strengthening in their country – looking at both key research organisations and the research system as a whole.

So far, Andrew and Nelisha have visited over 20 institutions and met with almost 50 informants. The first-hand experience of these stakeholders has proved invaluable to inform genuinely sustainable methods for research capacity strengthening in the future. Many of the findings highlighted in the REA resonate with the experience of local stakeholders, but there is also a clear understanding that increasing the ambition of research capacity strengthening interventions means dealing with systemic problems of underfunding and lack of capacity affecting entire government sectors.

As our African journey comes to an end in Uganda later this week, we’re starting to look ahead. Over the next two months, we will summarise these findings in a series of seven country-specific needs assessment reports, highlighting specific needs and opportunities for research capacity strengthening. Hopefully a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities in Sub-Saharan research systems will begin to develop and, as real solutions for sustainable and innovative research start to emerge, insights from this project can help DFID to work with partners in Africa and the developing world to drive the research agenda forward.