Low- and middle-income country focused networks add fresh perspectives to conference discussions
Capacity building in various guises – country experiences in developing national health research and innovation capacity, developing human resources for health research and innovation, and enhancing the infrastructure for health research and innovation – was an important theme of the discussions that took place this week in Manila, Philippines, during the Global Forum on Research and Innovation for Health.
A view of the Manila skyline
It was in this context that CHEPSAA participated in a panel discussion that highlighted and unpacked the experiences of capacity building initiatives / consortia with a focus on Africa and Asia. The discussion was moderated by Nasreen Jessani from Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and also included Future Health Systems – Africa Hub, the ARCADE project, and KEYSTONE.
Reflecting on the conference discussions in general, this panel discussion clearly added a focus on capacity building for health policy and systems research, with much of the other discussions covering a broader array of health-related research.
The contribution of this set of capacity building projects was also unique in that it focused on the creation, internal functioning and sustainability of capacity building consortia or networks – covering issues such as network governance, leveraging the strengths of different partners, challenges in networked capacity building and the possibility of sustaining networks past initial funding cycles – rather than mostly on the details of the sets of capacity building activities implemented.
The panel: Nasreen Jessani (l), Rosanna Rorstrom, Surekha Garimella, Chrispus Mayora and Ermin Erasmus
From the wider conference discussions it was clear that government, academic and private sector stakeholders were implementing an interesting array of capacity building interventions, including fellowships for post-graduate studies, grants for the completion of theses and dissertations and the dissemination of research findings, awards to the best mentors, persuading scientists to return to their home countries, giving emerging scientists the opportunity to work with more experienced specialists in their fields and offering joint degrees between Northern and Southern universities.
Much of CHEPSAA's capacity assessment and building work was grounded in Potter & Brough's (2004) framework, which distinguishes four interrelated dimensions of capacity: i) structures, systems and roles; ii) staff and infrastructure; iii) skills; iv) tools*. While similar notions were certainly mentioned in other capacity building discussions and descriptions, there was very little explicit reflection in the conference on how to think about capacity, the dimensions of capacity and conceptual frameworks that could support thinking about capacity building. It was therefore unclear whether others used frameworks similar to that used by CHEPSAA or whether the nature and dimensions of capacity was approached as something self-evident and commonly understood.
Another interesting question that came up in the wider conference, one that came up without being resolved, was how to measure the achievement of capacity building. The measures mentioned centered on the number of people trained, publications in journals, achieving policy influence and winning grants.
Again, CHEPSAA might have a slightly different approach to some other initiatives. On the one hand, for example, CHEPSAA focused very strongly on curriculum development and the associated development of teaching skills, which complements a focus on health subject knowledge and research outputs. On the other, CHEPSAA developed an extensive list of capacities required for successful functioning and growth in the field of health policy and systems research, which included teaching and research, but also broader concerns such as the confidence of practitioners, their ability to lead change and inter-personal and communication skills. This implies quite a wide (and perhaps sometimes less tangible) approach to assessing whether capacity development has taken place.
Despite possible differences in understanding and approach, many of CHEPSAA's values and experiences were also echoed in the broader conference discussions. Chief amongst these were the importance of funding availability in catalyzing change; the fact that it takes time and persistence to see the fruits of capacity building initiatives; the need to value the knowledge and capacity building assets that one already possesses; the need to not simply train isolated individuals, but also to think about the organisations in which they work; and the importance of relationships and partnerships between different stakeholders in making the most of capacity building initiatives and opportunities.
- Ermin Erasmus, CHEPSAA coordinator, Manila, Philippines, 26 August 2015
*Potter, C. and R. Brough, Systemic capacity building: a hierarchy of needs. Health Policy and Planning, 2004. 19(5): p. 336-345.