Identifying emerging needs in research capacity
From Berlin to Beijing
New priorities and innovative mechanisms for research capacity development have been the subject of intense scrutiny by TDR, the World Health Organization, and the ESSENCE on Health initiative of international funders this past year. The goal is to identify areas to be supported by TDR and funders with the greatest potential impact in strengthening the ability of low- and middle-income countries to conduct research for improved health.
A number of key recommendations came out of 2012 World Health Summit in Berlin, Germany in October, which was sponsored by WHO/TDR, ESSENCE and GIZ to bring together national, regional and global actors to discuss donor harmonization and enhanced alignment with country needs. These recommendations included:
- Long term institutional support and engagement.
- Monitoring and evaluation of impact at all stages.
- Understanding of the variety of needs in strong and weaker environments.
- Support of emerging capacity centers in South Africa, Ghana, Asia and Brazil.
- Having local institutions in low- and middle-income countries play a main role in defining the focus of capacity strengthening activities in their areas.
- Supporting a variety of skills such as research management and knowledge translation.
- Alignment of agencies supporting research must continue.
- Support for networks and innovative North-South and South-South collaborative arrangements should continue.
A month later, capacity for health systems research was the key topic of Second Global Symposium on Health Systems Research held in Beijing, China. TDR and ESSENCE brought experts together to look at how to increase research capacity in this field. The discussion was a follow-up of the previous Symposium where several themes and options emerged, including:
- the essential need to clarify definitions of this type of capacity;
- the vital nature of harmonization; and
- the indispensable need for countries to prioritize the building of health systems research capacity.
At this year’s TDR panel, additional opinions emerged. Qingyue Meng of the China Center for Health Development Studies (CCHDS) and School of Public Health, Peking University, Beijing, China underlined, “There is no real consensus of health systems research in China, and one major reason is that we don’t really understand the concept of ‘systems’ as it exists in English. The WHO definition and guidelines on health systems research have helped, but the understanding is still vague. We have a lot of knowledge at the technical level, but we need more information from the point of view of citizens.”
Irene Agyepong of the Ghana Health Service and School of Public Health, University of Ghana, Accra, Ghana brought up her views on how strong research capacity facilitated development of a key health policy in her country. She said, “We started researching whether health insurance is feasible in Ghana. The initial answer was no, but the community really wanted it to happen. So the fact that we continued to collect data ended up being really useful.”
Sharmila Mhatre of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada offered what IDRC does to ensure sustainability. “We have something called the ‘grants-plus model’ which enables us to work with researchers and decision makers to ensure that the projects we support strengthen both individual and organizational capacities and are embedded in existing systems. There is no one blue print, but as individuals and organizations gain the skills and confidence, it builds ownership and expertise that translates into accountability and an exit strategy for funders. Since we are relatively a small donor, we recognize that we cannot boost capacity strengthening on our own, thus we communicate and work with other funders to sustain such an approach.”
Irene Agyepong added, “Sustainability is important and if a short project is embedded well, it can then be carried on – if all the technical assistance is parachuted in, then when the project ends, so will the momentum. If you give local scientists ownership, you ensure sustainability.”
A full set of recommendations are being developed of these panel discussions, which will be used to help develop funding priorities at TDR and the other organizations involved.
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