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Moving evidence into action: Reflections from research leaders in the Global South

April 1, 2022

As the world strives to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been more urgency to share research-generated evidence — and ensure solutions move into action. As a research funder, IDRC’s response has been to enhance our focus on knowledge sharing so the evidence generated by our research partners goes further and accomplishes more. Our vision is for IDRC-supported research to influence development agendas and inform solutions to key challenges at local, regional and global levels.  

In November 2021, IDRC hosted a webinar, Peer Learning on Knowledge Sharing, inviting some of our research partners to share their experiences and facilitate mutual learning about different knowledge-sharing strategies. The conversation pointed to some effective ways to translate evidence into policy, social and behavioural change, including leveraging digital technologies and engaging stakeholders. The discussion also highlighted the need to address systemic barriers to inclusion and equality. 

Improving access to evidence: Leveraging digital technologies 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted research processes and knowledge-translation activities in many ways. The crisis has limited travel and traditional networking and information-exchange opportunities. People could no longer attend in-person meetings, so they pivoted with their organizations towards alternative solutions to engage in knowledge sharing at the local, sub-national, national and global levels. Digital platforms like WhatsApp and Zoom for meetings and online learning have been critical to keeping researchers and policy actors connected.   

“We found that WhatsApp is a very useful platform. It’s free and not overly technical. It works in a time of flux when connectivity and electricity are uncertain,” said Maryann Joy Dreas-Shaikha, team leader and management consultant at the Knowledge and Innovation Exchange Africa 19 Hub, UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa. In her view, digital dialogues are particularly successful when they are country-focused, co-created and maintained over time.  

In a similar vein, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) in South Africa has advanced knowledge sharing through a digital channel it previously overlooked – Wikipedia. Often ignored as a tool for driving policy and social behavioural change, the platform is the most-used open-access source of information in the world, generating 112-million page views relating to climate change between 2019 and 2020 alone.  

“In the climate change community, there’s a bit of an echo chamber online, so we wanted to move into more mainstream channels. It became clear to us we cannot ignore Wikipedia for communicating to diverse audiences and in multiple languages. It’s a powerful tool to democratize access to knowledge,” explained Lisa McNamara, knowledge and learning lead at CDKN.  

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Group photograph of the African climate change workshop/edit-a-thon participants in Cape Town, South Africa. 
Douglas Scott / CC BY-SA 3.0 
Group photograph of the African climate change workshop/edit-a-thon participants in Cape Town, South Africa. 

CDKN is advocating for the climate change community to consider Wikipedia in outreach and engagement plans and in designing programs and projects. It’s also working to bring more diversity to Wikipedia authorship. Currently, only 20% of Wikipedia editors are female and 20% are from the Global South, with just 1.3% of edits coming from African authors. To help bridge these gaps, CDKN hosted two edit-a-thons in 2019 and 2020. The first edit-a-thon was face-to-face and brought together 30 African researchers from 10 countries across the continent. The second, a virtual event, was attended by 275 people from more than 60 countries, 72% of whom were from the Global South and 51% of whom were women. CDKN has also published a how-to guide to get people started on Wikipedia.  

Creating and sharing knowledge: Engaging stakeholders on the ground 

Lessons from our partners highlight a critical truth about the nature of knowledge: it is more effective when co-created with policymakers and practitioners working at local, national or regional levels. Knowledge is their experience — their process of learning, practicing identifying and sharing what works and what does not. IDRC works to prioritize this type of contextually relevant knowledge.  

One example of the unique value of local knowledge comes from a project in northern Uganda, which was run by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) under the Innovating for Maternal and Child Health in Africa initiative co-funded by IDRC, Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.  

“We had a challenge where a hospital was very far away, and many women could not reach it to give birth. We consulted people in the community for ideas. They came up with a solution that none of the researchers or policy actors had thought about: they decided to build a bridge that substantially reduced the distance to the hospital,” said Patterson Siema, director of policy engagement and communications at APHRC. The same members of the community sourced the materials and built the bridge themselves. As a result, many more women now deliver at the hospital, which has reduced complications at birth and improved maternal and newborn health. 

It can also be effective to share knowledge via local channels. Siema explained how community media have been critical to the organization’s efforts to innovate in child and maternal welfare: “The community media better understand the community’s challenges and tend to have a very low cost of engagement. In most cases, they’re either owned by the community or a religious group within it, which helps them deliver messaging in a good way.” 

As well as considering the benefits of sourcing knowledge locally, we must also consider the dangers of failing to do so. Petronell Kruger, senior researcher at the South African Medical Research Council/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science, illustrates this with an example of an unsuccessful editorial designed to influence tax levies on soda in South Africa.  

“We’re constantly advocating to our Minister of Finance and Treasury to increase the tax. One of our latest strategies was to take out a full page in a local business publication,” Kruger stated. “We wanted to show it had universal support, so it featured a lot of different professors from North American universities, amongst others. The next day, the sugar lobby came out and said this shows foreign interference in South African policy. The answer is to make sure you use local advocacy and local evidence as much as possible.”  

Kruger also stressed that knowledge sharing will always be a process of trial and error. “I think the lesson here is that in school you sit down, you’re taught a lesson, and you get tested. But in life, you get a taste first and then you learn the lesson.”       

Stephen Wainaina, development and public policy consultant at the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP), spoke of PEP’s strategy to promote evidence-based policy-making by involving policymakers in research teams. “It’s a good mix of high-level decision makers and technocrats,” he said. Wainaina cited research on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic policies in Zimbabwe, where the evidence generated was used to assist the most vulnerable: women, children and poor households. This resulted in economic stimulus programs that benefited those who needed them most. 

Another valuable approach is the use of knowledge-sharing events to encourage policy discussions and uptake. Professor Melha Rout Biel highlighted the successful series of breakfast meetings hosted by the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies (CSPS) in South Sudan. The events engaged policymakers, civil society and other stakeholders on the ground and featured invited experts. The CSPS is developing a series of publications on the topics discussed, which included corruption, food security, health and security reform. 

Addressing systemic barriers: Increasing representation, equality and inclusion  

Women and girls face distinct barriers not only in accessing knowledge, but also in getting involved in knowledge creation and exchange. It is therefore critically important to integrate gender considerations into knowledge-sharing strategies because this helps address barriers faced by key knowledge users such as women and sexual minorities.        

The APHRC points to the success it had when engaging female decision-makers in a project in the Maasai area of Tanzania, where many women were not delivering at the hospital, despite evidence that hospital delivery leads to better maternal and newborn health outcomes. Engaging these decision-makers in evidence-based dialogues resulted in them adopting an innovative solution through addressing the knowledge-use barrier. “They decided to build huts near the hospital where expectant mothers can rest shortly before they give birth. We saw a 30% increase in the number of women delivering at the hospital as a result,” noted Siema.  

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 Engaging the community to find solutions to gender-based barriers can have positive outcomes. 
IDRC / Andrew Esiebo 
Engaging the community to find solutions to gender-based barriers can have positive outcomes. 

Asena Salome, senior research officer at the United States International University-Africa, in Kenya, explained how gender was considered in the university's project to train 1,200 young entrepreneurs in the agri-food industry. This was done through a unique living lab model to support learning, along with innovation, business development and the creation of new knowledge. The university involved stakeholders at the inception of the project to secure buy-in and to identify potential gaps, including barriers to attracting female participants. It conducted a baseline survey and found that female entrepreneurs may struggle to attend sessions due to parenting duties. Childcare support was therefore offered to reduce this access barrier and increase female participation, thus empowering more women with knowledge and tools to grow their agribusiness enterprises. 

While women and girls face barriers in knowledge creation and exchange, they are not alone. Due to intersectional oppression based on differences of gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion and mental or physical ability, LGBTIQ2+ and other marginalized groups experience persistent, structural barriers to accessing, using and creating knowledge. IDRC’s Strategy 2030 includes a robust commitment to gender equality and inclusion. Looking toward 2030, IDRC programming is putting even greater focus on addressing systemic barriers to equality. 

The way knowledge is produced and shared must prioritize the needs of women, girls and gender-diverse groups to develop truly inclusive solutions and transform the social norms and structures that perpetuate inequality. Only then can we hope to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive world. 

Research Highlights

Key lessons on enhancing knowledge sharing 

  • Reconsider existing, overlooked digital platforms.  

  • Prioritize local and regional evidence. 

  • Co-create knowledge with the stakeholders who will use the knowledge. This means engaging policymakers and practitioners, local communities, and women and sexual minorities in research processes. 

  • Ask questions that get at the root causes of discrimination.