By Aziza Modise, with support from Natalie Tannous
This blog post is part of a series on the history and development of the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) that draws on two 2020 research projects. These research projects focus on capturing ACE stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences of ACE’s contribution to evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). Drawing on interviews among ACE staff (previous and current), members of the Africa Evidence Network (whose Secretariat ACE hosts) (the AEN), and our partners, the stories captured in this series paint a rich picture of ACE’s contribution to the African and South African EIDM space. We aim to publish a new post on the tenth of every month. View the whole series here.
Come with me one more time dear reader as we journey yet again to the distant past. This time we are at sea where back in 2007 and long before ACE was formed, two young researchers (Ruth and Carina) were afloat on a raft in a sea of research, trying to steer their raft in the direction of using systematic reviews to inform decisions. On their voyage, they met many other sea-farers who joined them on this raft. This blog post focuses on two of these fellow sea-adventurers who joined our two researchers on this raft and became the foundation of a strong team that continues to help this raft on its journey even today. These two explorers are Laurenz Langer and Promise Nduku.
First to come along was Laurenz (he shares some of his reasons for getting on this raft below). He initially joined this band of researchers as a research assistant (remember that right now, we’re in 2012 – ACE does not exist yet). At the start of climbing onto this raft, Laurenz worked substantially on an urban agriculture systematic review led by another sea-farer: Marcel Korth. From the start, Laurenz wanted to see systematic reviews being used for real decisions, and he applied his newly gained synthesis skills to explore the evidence base of his former raft: that of sports for development.
No sporting chance
Quite the soccer player in his youth, Laurenz designed and implemented a ‘soccer for development’ project in the Eastern Cape prior to joining Ruth, Carina, and Marcel on their systematic review for decisions raft. Back in the Eastern Cape, he and a dedicated and hard-working team of people had good intentions and lofty objectives of using soccer for gender empowerment, HIV prevention, and a few other outcomes. However, after four years of project implementation, an external evaluation of this project showed that no significant difference had been made. These results hit him hard and he calls them “a wake-up call”. He talks about realising that “good intentions, while probably a good starting point for development, is definitely not an endpoint”. This evaluation of the soccer for development project made him move away from this passion and steered this sailor to the University of Johannesburg as an undergraduate student, taking him closer to the ACE raft.
In his second year, Laurenz had Carina as his lecturer in Development Studies who told him about a raft that he should be more interested in climbing on, one that took seriously decision-making using more than just “good intentions”. This was Ruth and her motley crew of researchers and he started rowing in that direction. He talks about the moment he decided to do a systematic review on the potential effect his former life had had: “Ruth was very clear that we should not build a case based on a single study; so, I got interested in the ‘body of evidence’ and what that said [about sport for development interventions]. I then did my first systematic review on sport for development.”
Laurenz wanted to know whether his efforts to improve the world could have worked. After systematically reviewing the available evidence base, he found that there was a lack of available evidence on whether using sport for development purposes was effective.
“Basically, I was looking for other evaluations of the type [of intervention] at that time, which was a big shocker…I found no evidence at all; which suggests the idea that soccer–for–development work was not based on any data and research.”
Charting a new course
Laurenz described how he felt at this shocking discovery: “Still, the United Nations and others were pouring millions into these types of interventions on an annual basis…it was really frustrating.
In a way I was upset because somebody really should have done a review of the evidence before channelling millions in public funds to sport-for-development projects. It’s not OK to issue public funds based on hunches and well-meaning ideas of what might work. With the money given to our project alone, a couple of schools could have been built in the Eastern Cape.”
This was a turning point for Laurenz, as he describes how he realised through this experience that while generating good evidence is an important part of the evidence-informed decision-making value chain, getting that evidence used by decision-makers is equally crucial.
This experience describes this adventurer’s arrival at “evidence synthesis and bodies of evidence”. A project in those early years that would be significant in paving part of the future was the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) database project. This project mapped a path for what would become the policy-relevant evidence maps at ACE. Navigated by the now evidence synthesis team at ACE, these maps form a core part of how the synthesis team works to ensure that generated evidence is actually used.
Building a bigger boat
Many years after the IFAD work, and with the successful awarding of the Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence grant from the UK Department for International Development, our sea voyager was included as part of the team delivering the University of Johannesburg-led BCURE programme in South Africa. You’ll remember that this programme of work involved getting to know government colleagues’ decision-making contexts and evidence needs, and mentoring them about how evidence synthesis could support their efforts.
It was at this time that our young sailor met DPME’s Research and Knowledge Management Unit director Harsha Dayal and her team. Through this relationship, the life raft was built to be a little roomier. This collaboration set the path for a total of eight policy-relevant evidence maps and the co-development of an entire methodology informing a number of national policies with evidence on the way. The ability to grow and find local solutions and adapt evidence synthesis methods and processes for local contexts is what has strengthened the evidence synthesis team and portfolio at ACE.
After BCURE, researchers at the still then-Centre for Anthropological Research were employed to support on two more systematic reviews. One review was about women in wage labour and the other focused on ecosystem services for poverty alleviation. These researchers were Mary Opondo, Charity Chisoro, and Zafeer Ravat. While some of the team have since moved on to sail other seas, others have continued faring the seas of research for evidence-use as ACE sailors. As from 2017, evidence synthesis became a portfolio that constantly balanced full systematic reviews and evidence maps with policy-adapted reviews and maps.
[SIDE BAR]: I needed to mention Zafeer Ravat (an engaging gentleman I met when I went to the office recently) because he is personally responsible for bringing even more explorers onto the raft. Through him, three additional colleagues joined ACE in 2017. Like so many of us who begin a career journey with ACE, where Promise Nduku, Elton Mpinyuri, and Nkululeko Tshabalala started, was not where they ended up. In light of the focus of evidence synthesis in this blog post, suffice to say that Promise now works as an integral part of the evidence synthesis team.
Jumping into the raft
Promise remembers the start of his voyage with this growing team of sailors: “I came to ACE in 2017, at that time looking for a job. My friend Zafeer was working for ACE and suggested I give him my CV. I was glad to be offered a position to be a personal assistant for Ruth, doing ad-hoc tasks. At the same time, I would be required to support communications and the evidence synthesis team when needed. There came a time when I was given a choice between working for the Africa Evidence Network (AEN) Secretariat and working on evidence synthesis, and so my focus on evidence maps began.”
When Promise adds, “I still remember my first few weeks at ACE. The initial experience was that of anxiety. I felt so out of place because I didn’t fully understand what ACE was doing at that time. It took a bit of time to start feeling at home”, I can’t help smiling as I hear my initial experience of this place mirrored back to me. I really could not grasp this collective obsession with evidence-use, the talk of ‘bodies of evidence’ (gasp!), and this happiness about yet another evidence map.
Promise continues to say, “It was around 2018 when I got to understand the philosophy behind evidence synthesis, particularly when the methodology began to make sense”. His voice gets that ‘serious’ inflection that heralds his excitement about a topic (I do miss my colleagues and hope South Africa vaccinates post haste) when he says,
“When you compare evidence synthesis to other knowledge generation, the comprehensiveness, the rigour that is placed, made it feel powerful to me.”
“I loved doing government engagements, particularly with the DPME. It is amazing to be in academia but also have the practicality behind the work. And when we started gaining traction globally, I felt this is the right place”, Promise comments.
Promise picks on one project that he wants to highlight where he personally felt the impact of his work: the land reform evidence map. Back in 2019 (was there a time when we weren’t in a pandemic?), the evidence synthesis team was requested to collate policy-relevant evidence about land reform interventions to inform the report submitted to the President of South Africa by the President’s Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture. Promise says, “Sitting down with policy-makers and using evidence to contribute to a key report on land reform was really exciting. That was the moment I felt I really made an impact”.
Taking the journey further
Both Laurenz and Promise – and others at ACE – often talk of the power of not picking one study or other but rather taking them all together and combining their insights. Recognisably, this emanates from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work on ‘The danger of a single story’. For these two voyagers, it is the appeal of evidence synthesis for supporting decision-making is the comprehensiveness and transparency of these approaches. I think these words from Laurenz encapsulates the thrust of what they do by saying, “At ACE, I kind of see it all coming together, in terms of my personal journey, from development effectiveness and impact evaluations, to bodies of evidence and how we get these bodies of evidence to be used systematically. To me, if we can crack this, we can make the biggest change to development in any country really. Because if we have governments who allocate public money on good bodies of evidence, I think we will see much more impactful and equitable policies and outcomes”.
By 2020, the evidence synthesis portfolio was proof of how the initial raft that Ruth and Carina used to traverse the ocean of research on microfinance had evolved into a sophisticated vessel of scientific exploration. This research vessel was made possible by the efforts of more adventurers, some of whom joined for only a season and all of whom played their part in building this vessel. Contributions from colleagues such as Andile Madonsela, Shona Putuka, Tanya Mdlalose and many more, have supported the transformation of that tiny life raft into what it is today. We look forward to where we will next meet with them on our continuing journey.
We have enjoyed this journey with you into our collective memories of #ACEingIt. We hope we have inspired, surprised, and motivated you with our stories. In our final post next month, you’ll *watch* some of the characters from this series talk about how ACE has influenced the evidence-informed decision-making ecosystem in South 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 Centre for Evidence, its executive management, advisory or reference groups, or its funders; nor does it imply endorsement by the afore-mentioned parties.
Modise A & Tannous N. 10 October 2021. Blog post: Blending art and science to build something that lasts. Available at: https://africacentreforevidence.org/from-soccer-for-development-to-using-bodies-of-evidence-for-real-change/.