Articles Reality check: evidence-informed policymaking in resource constrained settings

Reality check: evidence-informed policymaking in resource constrained settings

Emily Hayter (INASP) highlights some fundamental challenges faced by African policymakers when it comes to using research, based on the experiences of participants in the VakaYiko programme. These must be addressed by those wishing to build capacity for civil servants and parliamentarians in these countries to make better use of research – which a new INASP toolkit seeks to do.

High level, cutting edge debate on research evidence and use was promised and delivered at recent events hosted by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and 3ie. But I was left thinking: do we need a reality check?

How do we put this debate and knowledge into practice in resource-constrained developing country contexts?

I attended the events with colleagues from GINKS in Ghana and ZeipNET in Zimbabwe, who are part of the VakaYiko Consortium working with INASP and ODI to build skills and institutional processes for gathering, appraising and using a broad range of robust evidence in policymaking.

Over the last three years, we’ve worked with three parliaments, three ministries and one civil service college across four African countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ghana. We targeted our interventions at the civil servants and parliamentary staff who gather and appraise evidence for decision-making.

Of course, the policymaking contexts are very different in our four African partner countries and also between institutions in each country. But there are some issues that we’ve needed to tackle across contexts.  Here are four things we’ve learned need to be taken seriously to build civil servants’ capacity for evidence use in resource constrained settings:

1. There are less resources

This may seem an obvious point, but some discussions during London Evidence Week seemed to me to rest on unrealistic assumptions about the numbers of researchers involved in providing evidence for policy in low and middle income countries, and the resources they have at their disposal.

In the UK Parliament, for example, there are over 120 researchers spread across the Library and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. In the Zimbabwean Parliament where ZeipNET works, there are 12. Of course, the budget considerations are also vastly different.

We need to find ways to meaningfully adapt our resource-intensive tools to contexts where research departments are often underfunded and understaffed.

2. Access is a key factor but doesn’t = use

In our workshops with civil servants, research consistently falls at the bottom of the list of types of evidence used, with participants telling us they don’t have access to expensive journals. How can a policy analyst conduct an evidence gap map if they have no access to journals or a library?

The answer is more complex than it seems.

Over the last 10 years, INASP’s research access programme has reached over 1,900 universities and research institutes in 20+ countries to make available more than 50,000 online journals and 20,000 online books at free or deeply discounted rates.  As my colleague Jon Harle found in a report for the ACU five years ago, availability of international journals in some African universities is now comparable to that in leading European institutions. Through national library consortia, government institutions are eligible to access these resources.

But many civil servants we work with (and indeed many of our colleagues in the EIPM sector) are not aware of this.

One of the most important parts of our work has been raising awareness of what’s available and how to use it. For some, the most useful part of our training is the list of resources we’ve produced which are available to researchers in developing countries.

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3. IT issues affect evidence use

But access doesn’t equal use.  Many of the civil servants we work with don’t have reliable access to the internet, or the connection speed may be too slow to download PDFs. Some do not have access to their own computers at all, and printing can also be difficult. In cases where the research department doesn’t have any form of reliable internal storage system, it’s difficult for researchers to store and share their own pieces as well as new resources.

We’ve found that IT issues are one of the biggest barriers to systematic use of research evidence in the countries where we work. Of course this has an obvious bearing on a research department’s capacity to review large volumes of evidence.

4. Core skills are important

Understanding research itself is crucial: “for evidence to be used, you need to understand what you are dealing with”, notes the Alliance for Useful Evidence in their recent report Using Evidence: What Works? As a result of the limited resources, IT difficulties and low use of research outlined above, this is a particular issue in the contexts VakaYiko is working in.

Many researchers and policy analysts we work with are unfamiliar with the standards and conventions of formal published research such as peer review processes and research methodologies, which makes evidence appraisal difficult. Other key core skills and knowledge include using references and citations, writing policy briefs, using Excel, and searching databases. For example, some participants from our training tell us that the session on how to use Boolean operators to search a database effectively is one of the most valuable take-home skills they learn (available to download as a free poster).

So what’s the way forward?

We’ll be launching our Evidence-Informed Policy Making Toolkit on 24 May, in which we’ve tried to address some of the issues above. We hope it will be useful to colleagues who are thinking about working on EIPM in developing countries – the final version will be available for download on our website from mid-June

Over the next few months INASP’s Evidence-Informed Policy Making team will continue to share our learning and reflection from our experience in the VakaYiko programme. You can find our publications on our website.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.