Evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) is critical for all knowledge economies and for solving global and local problems. EIDM improves decision-making at a micro/personal level, macro/government policy level, as well as meso/practice or professional level.
In most instances, professionals in particular disciplines or across disciplines form Communities of Practice (CoPs) as one way of addressing their shared problems and interests. Collaborators in a CoP interact and inspire each other in various ways such as discourse engagements, research, peer review, study visits, knowledge synthesis, and in the process learn, share knowledge, evidence, and solutions. However, one may ask:
- How do these CoP define themselves and their roles?
- What are the risks and opportunities of establishing CoPs?
- How can CoPs ensure their sustainability?
It is in the light of these questions that the Africa Evidence Network (AEN) hosted a webinar with a three-member panel of speakers to discuss the risks and the opportunities for establishing communities of practice for evidence-informed decision-making in Africa. The speakers were Dr. Camilla Adelle from the Centre of Excellence in Food Security based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Mr. James Kariuki Ngumo, a senior research scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kenya. And Mr. Bali Andriantseheno, the regional representative at the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA). The panel was asked to share their experiences on what it takes to successfully establish and maintain a community of practice. This blog shares some of the insights discussed at the webinar.
Typically, CoPs are made up of professionals who collectively form interest groups around an area or problem e.g. education, food security, or climate change. A CoP on health may include academics, medical doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners and policy-makers.
However, some CoPs are transdisciplinary and seek to solve a myriad of issues, thus drawing expertise from various disciplines, allowing for diverse perspectives on the problems at hand. As Adelle noted, transdisciplinary CoPs help to create solutions that are “culturally robust” through collective knowledge-building from varied perspectives and disciplines, rather than in silos. Kariuki-Ngumo concurred that pooling from diverse knowledge bases and experiences also helps to “domesticate available knowledge” and ensure that research and insights are useful, relevant, and applicable to specific contexts.
The African Council of Distance Education (ACDE) established in 2004 is one example of a CoP that underscores the use EIDM to encourage African Union (AU) Member States or governments to adopt Open Distance and e-Learning (ODeL) methodologies to expand access, equity, and quality in education. Since its inception, the ACDE has focused on expanding education access, quality, and equity through ODeL to solve problems that cut across the AU Member States. The ACDE has the following goals and objectives:
- Promoting research and training in ODL including e-Learning in Africa.
- Contributing to the development of policies essential for the advancement of ODL including e-Learning.
- Providing a forum where members, individuals, organizations, and governments can deliberate on policy matters pertaining to ODL including e-Learning.
- Providing a platform for interaction, sharing, and dissemination of ideas on open and distance learning.
The abovementioned objectives and the ACDE’s mission statement serve as a mechanism for cohesion and focus. The ACDE also requires annual subscriptions from individual and institutional members, which assists with financial sustainability and implementation of programme activities. Given ACDE’s continental membership, it has opportunities to draw continent-wide as well as global visibility and as such has opportunities to draw funding for its activities from governments, international funders, as well as inter-governmental organizations like UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning.
Communities of practice like ACDE focussed on evidence-informed policy-making in Africa are growing and this is good for the continent. However, as all the panellists concurred, many CoPs in Africa face the challenge of sustainability due to the lack of sufficient funding needed for operational costs. Some CoPs collapse because of these funding challenges, poor management of donor funds, poor governance/leadership, and inadequate monitoring and evaluation.
Despite these challenges, opportunities do abound. When creatively and strategically structured, collaborators in CoPs can pool expertise, share activities, share costs especially in cases where there are financial and other resource constraints. Andriantseheno advised that CoPs focus on a “good problem” i.e. choose a clearly stated problem/s, which makes it easy to find partners, be they funders or fellow collaborators, on the ground. CoPs can also focus on societal problems where the solutions do not require enormous budgets and where partners are able to demonstrate quick-wins to the government, communities, and sectors they serve.
Ensuring rigour in research, excellent communication/knowledge translation, demonstrating impact, staying relevant, as Kariuki Ngumo put it, “behaving like a chameleon”, adapting and responding to challenges of the time (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic), are all essential elements for promoting sustaining CoPs as a way to further collaboration around EIDM in Africa.
The views expressed in published blog posts, as well as any errors or omissions, are the sole responsibility of the author/s and do not represent the views of the Africa Evidence Network, its secretariat, advisory or reference groups, or its funders; nor does it imply endorsement by the afore-mentioned parties.