As the Senior Manager for Strategy at the Africa Evidence Network, I had the privilege as well as the daunting task of summarising key elements of AEN’s EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE colloquium during the closing session. In this blog, I highlight my impression of eight cross-cutting themes that emerged. I’d like to note that these are neither mutually exclusive nor completely exhaustive. However, I see each of them as interlinked and underpinned by a commitment to social justice.
During the working sessions at EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE, participants raised many points related to equity in the distribution of resources, knowledge, power, agency, partnerships, collaborations, and alliances. Inclusion - “leaving no one behind” - spoke to the importance of equity with respect to gender, ethnicity (including indigenous populations) as well as disability in evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) in Africa. This focus on equity is not altogether surprising given the historic evolution of race and gender relations across the globe. Social movements such as #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall, #DecolonizeAfrica, and others all stem from the moral prerogative to uphold equity and social justice. This is front and centre in the African psyche and emerged as critical even as we spoke about EIDM.
The power of voice speaks to inspiring and empowering the evidence ecosystem. In a world where we raise the importance of equity, we would be remiss not to highlight the role of voice in advancing equity. The power of voice is so compelling that Ted: Ideas worth spreading has a dedicated playlist for showcasing these. Amplifying voices within the EIDM space, through stories, awards such as the Africa Evidence Leadership Award, enabling communities of practice, and opportunities to network such as EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE permit particular interest groups, communities of practice, students, or those who are new to the EIDM space to be heard. Further ideas for amplifying these voices included capacity-building, localising solutions, leading from with the African evidence ecosystem, inviting debate and discussion, and recognising the complementarity of the disciplines within which EIDM is embedded.
We cannot speak to the power of voice without highlighting the power of stories. So much of EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE was built on a bedrock of stories. Stories help to foreground social justice issues by focussing on the human aspect in parallel to the technical aspects of EIDM. They bring to the fore the successes and challenges that underlie EIDM. Stories are relatable because they speak to our emotional selves. Stories amplify citizen voice. Of course, while Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi warns us to avoid the dangers of a single story, we were urged at the start of the event by South African author and activist Sisonke Msimang that “If a story moves you, act on it.” The various AEN workstreams at EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE certainly did this. For instance, the Art and Science workstream used stories as well as documented literature to find the key elements of evidence-use. The Building Collaborations workstream used stories from the membership to uncover the key principles of collaborations. And the Capacities workstream co-hosted two webinars that showcased stories on enhancing EIDM capacities that served as a springboard for a manifesto on EIDM capacity strengthening that is forthcoming. While we must proceed with caution when we include stories amongst the panoply of what constitutes “evidence”, we need to recognise the value of stories and if necessary, substantiate these with the literature – and vice versa.
The authenticity of the self as well as the collective speaks to the nature of the collaborations and alliances we form, how we network with each other, and how we enhance each other's capacities. Authenticity in alliances and collaborations permit the manifestation of the true intention of “partnerships” to emerge. This authenticity is something that is often elusive in Africa in the context of externally-funded grants and projects where power imbalances often result in frustration and resentment (this document provides some guidance on authentic and equitable partnerships for funders and grantees). However, this power imbalance is not exclusive to funding relationships; it can be seen in local and state partnerships between organisations as well. Partnerships that have better success are those that embody principles of authenticity. United Way has created a checklist against which one can assess the authenticity of their collaborations. Our (positive) relationships – and therefore our social capital – are anchored on trust, humility, and honesty amongst others. These, together with our experiences, permit vulnerability – to succeed, to fail, and to learn. Authentic vulnerability means being willing and able to show the truest version of yourself. Jordan Harbinger in his blog “Stop Trying to be Vulnerable: Do This Instead” reminds us that true vulnerability happens on our terms, with people who have earned that right. And this links back to why authenticity is so important when we think about the various actors, processes, and contexts that drive collaborations for EIDM.
Participants highlighted them as "the glue, the DNA" of EIDM in Africa and you will note reference to relationships above; this would suggest that investing in relationships for the future should be done with authenticity. But practically, what does this mean? How do we invest authentically in relationships? The key principles of collaborations gathered by the Building Collaborations workstream at EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE may be one place to start. There are also several studies on relationships in EIDM from various contexts that could shed some light and provides some guidance. Some focus on the networks of relationships, some on the evolution of relationships, others on temporal maturity of the partnerships. Our own personal experiences are also reliable internal rudders that we cannot discard. What is important to keep in mind is that relationships are influenced by personalities, previous collaborative experiences, changing circumstances, and contextual complexities. This renders them dynamic rather than static which underpins the importance of frequent and iterative stakeholder analyses when navigating the EIDM ecosystem.
Language shapes the extent to which we're able to engage with EIDM support in Africa. When we think about language in the literal sense, we think about its importance with respect to communication and inclusion. Arabic, by population, is the most widely-spoken language in Africa followed by Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger–Congo languages. However, with the advent of colonisation, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish gained currency as the lingua franca over time. Together with these languages came governance processes and cultures that still – until today – shape how evidence as well as decision-making is understood and practiced. Therefore, when we think of language from a more abstract rather than literal point of view, we see its value in enhancing our understanding of the cultural, historical, and contextual underpinnings of EIDM in different parts of the continent. Also, so much of how we speak about EIDM is embedded in our choice of words. Paying more critical attention to language can help demystify understandings of “evidence”, clarify partnership norms, and deconstruct the micro, meso, and macro influences on society and their implications for social justice.
With COVID-19 having coloured everyone’s experience of 2020, crises emerged as a lens through which to consider how we work to support EIDM in Africa. Crises such as COVID-19, famine, drought, migration, and war have significant impact on our everyday norms and practices. We have seen such crises affect relationships, social capital, capacity strengthening endeavours, as well as collaborations and alliances. As we explored how to continue supporting EIDM in Africa, participants noted how processes and structures for EIDM and previously-established “rules of engagement” needed swift shifts in direction and practice when crises struck. Crises have led us to adapt, innovate, enhance or even diminish existing practises to give rise to new ones. Crises have influenced our interpretation of what is “good” vs “best” practice. Crises have also, as some noted, provided us with the opportunity to capitalise on them as EIDM energisers.
Institutionalisation and systemic change speak to issues around citizen engagement, political activism, organisational cultures, programme guidelines, and media education. Many of the themes above touch upon the importance of investing in systems: systems that promote equity, social justice, and voice; systems that are resilient and can withstand crises; systems that are strong and yet adaptable to the volatile nature of changing contexts. Systemic change can perhaps compel us to break silos and work across sectors, disciplines, and expertise as we enhance the African evidence ecosystem.
In conclusion, I’d like to highlight that what was remarkable for me about EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE was the communal effort to advance EIDM on the continent. I am convinced that we would have missed the interconnectedness of these themes had we not been actively working together both in the lead-up to and during this working meeting. This impression reiterates our African spirit of Ubuntu: the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Together, we are stronger. Together, we will make EIDM a reality.
I would like to acknowledge all the participants at EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE whose ideas and contributions have resulted in this cornucopia of interconnected themes. It was through these discussions as well as a) the workstream updates by AEN program officers Likhwa Ncube, Precious Motha, and Charity Chisoro b) the daily closing summaries by workstream facilitators Sandy Oliver, Kirchuffs Atengble, and Rhona Mijumbi; and c) the daily wrap-ups by Shanil Haricharan, Patrick Okwen, and Josephine Watera, that I was able to combine all these emerging ideas into 8 concise themes. I’d also like to acknowledge ACE colleagues, several of whom reaffirmed and/or enhanced some of these ideas just as I was preparing my closing reflection of EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE.
About the author
Dr. Nasreen Jessani is the Head of Strategy for the Africa Evidence Network at the Africa Centre for Evidence in South Africa. She is also responsible for capacity strengthening in evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) and knowledge translation (KT) at the Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care at Stellenbosch University. In addition to being faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and at Stellenbosch University, she is currently on the advisory board for Academy Health’s Translation and Dissemination Institute and is Vice-Chair of the Evidence to Action Thematic Working Group for Health Systems Global. Nasreen sits on a local COVID-19 Task Force in South Africa and serves as an advisor to a number of community organisations on their COVID-19 implementation and recovery plans.
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 aforementioned parties.