Researchers or Advocates? We Must be Both.

May 27, 2015

By Alex Ezeh, Executive Director, APHRC

African voices have been missing from the health and development discourse for too long. When APHRC’s Director of Research, Catherine Kyobutungi recently shared Y. Claire Wang’s commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Dangerous Silence of Academic Researchers,” it reminded me of why we started APHRC some 15 years ago. The research-to policy continuum is central to our organizational mission, it’s true. But even more than that, APHRC scientists—myself included—see it as a part of our duty as Africans to contribute to program and policy decision making at the local, national, regional, and international levels.

In the article, Wang discusses the all too common desire for researchers to hide behind objectivity and a lack of “many large randomized control trials all producing the same results” as reasons to keep from using their science to help inform policy. Of course, there is always the fear that maybe the next study will negate previous results, and our professional reputation could be put at risk. “If we wait for the perfect evidence, we will wait forever,” Wang writes. “When we withhold our perspectives, we risk depriving the public of the best available information. Speaking out is not only our right, it is also our responsibility.”

I believe, like Wang, that the greater risk is in staying silent. Or in falsely believing that by publishing our results in peer-reviewed journals, our work as researchers is done. The reality is that most policy makers often do not read and apply results reported in peer reviewed journals. As we continue to generate and supply high quality and timely health and population research informed by our work across sub-Saharan Africa, we also work to increase policy makers’ demand for evidence to support government programs and funding. Until prioritization of research as a public good and an essential input into all policy making and budgeting is achieved across Africa, we must maintain our dual roles as researchers and advocates.

On a related note, another part of our responsibility as researchers is to remain current in our areas of expertise. To that end, I will take some time this year for a sabbatical. I will spend part of it at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in South Africa reflecting and writing about APHRC’s research and programmatic experiences in urban informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, the challenges of rapid and unplanned urbanization in Africa more generally, and the potential strategies African countries can adopt to address the multiple vulnerabilities and marginalization the urban poor face across the region. I am looking forward to this break and will return to APHRC later in 2015 ready to engage in the next phase of the Center’s success.