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Research capacity building in Africa: experience of the African Institutions Initiative

Marjanovic, S.   Hanlin, R   Diepeveen, S.   Chataway, J


Hangzhou, China

May 1 2012

Since the 1990s, global-health funders and policy makers have increasingly considered the potential of networked models to enhance the impact and efficiency of investments in health research capacity-building in Africa; the importance of ensuring stronger local ownership of initiatives; and the importance of building sustainable research institutions as key priorities. This matters because strengthening the capacity of developing countries to do and use research is widely viewed as vital for meeting long term innovation and public health needs. Despite the importance of research capacity-building for improving health outcomes, the evidence base on what works and what doesn’t in research capacity-building in African contexts, and on how key policy issues unfold on the ground, is still fragmented. Existing literature on research capacity-building tends to discuss policy-relevant issues at a relatively high-level with less insight into the nuances of implementing research capacity-building models and policy choices in every-day practice, or potential solutions to capacity-building challenges. This paper helps to address this gap through an analysis of how multi-partner networks are built and how their success depends on building institutional level capacity strengthening within partner institutions. To do this, the paper focuses on the Wellcome Trust’s African Institutions initiative, a recent (2009), innovative and large-scale example of the growing number of networked research capacity-building initiatives that are emerging in response to the need for research capacity growth. The initiative funds 7 interdisciplinary health research capacity-building consortia incorporating 51 institutions in 18 African countries, and 17 partners across Europe, the United States, Australia and Malaysia. As part of this, the Wellcome Trust commissioned an independent real-time evaluation of the initiative; this paper draws on evidence from baseline capacity assessments of participating African institutions, and findings from annual evaluations of the first 2 years of the initiative. We identify priority areas for policy attention and share emerging early insights on mechanisms and strategies consortia are implementing for: overcoming barriers tosustainable research activity (e.g. for establishing postdoctoral positions and research career pathways) though mobilising institutional support for research (e.g. advocating for merit-based promotion and accreditation standards); creating sustainable networks (e.g. through facilitating repeated interactions, the sharing of resources and addressing benefit distribution challenges); and enhancing governance, management, laboratory and ICT infrastructure.