As countries embark on their UHC journey, the need for evidence and strong national health research systems has become more critical than ever. Countries in the Africa Region have overall experienced significant improvements in the capacity, governance, utilization and financing of research yet their national health research systems are performing below their potential, according to the WHO Regional Strategy for Health in the African Region. At best, only 2 countries in the WHO African Region are in compliance with the Algiers Declaration of 2008, which recommends that countries invest at least 2% of their national health expenditure into their national health research systems.
The regional capacity to generate the scientific knowledge that would underpin important advancements in technologies, systems and services that are fundamental to reaching universal health coverage is weak. The 21 newly appointed members of the WHO African Advisory Committee on Health Research and Development (AACHRD) thus have a big task ahead of them. During the first meeting of the reconstituted AACHRD in Gaborone, Botswana (14–15 October 2019), they reviewed advances and challenges and made proposals to advance health research on the continent. The committee comprises regional experts, leaders in academia and top research professionals from across the WHO African Region with a mandate to advise the WHO Regional Director on policies for research on health and development.
The first meeting of this committee came at a critical moment as WHO works to refine its research agenda and be more effective to member states as they try to strengthen their national research systems. The investment made in a country’s research system is one of the key ways to catapult progress in the attainment of UHC and the other health related SDG targets.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa, who attended the meeting to underscore the urgency for rigorous and vital research on health issues in the region, reiterated that “Country ownership and strong political commitment is growing, and countries are increasingly utilizing health research to inform policy. We need to support these efforts.” Indeed, efforts by WHO-AFRO to strengthen research for UHC can only be successful if there exists an appetite and commitment at the country level.
WHO-AFRO’s partnerships for knowledge translation under the guidance of the AACHRD, present one of the key moves towards this effort to strengthen research uptake at the country level. The use of research for policy making relies heavily on knowledge translation, in the form of rapid policy briefs, white papers and guidelines that are easily digestible to policy makers. It is for this reason that the regional office continues to partner with organizations like Cochrane Africa, to explore the prospects of increasing production and uptake of these deliverables in the region.
Innovation, as a vehicle for improving health outcomes also remains under-explored and under-funded in the Region. As part of WHO-AFRO’s core priorities in its newly developed transformation agenda, health innovation is being pushed at the country level, and young and brilliant entrepreneurs are being identified and supported as they work to scale up their innovations. Key among the actions being taken by the Regional office to champion this agenda was the launch of the Africa Health Innovation challenge in 2018 and the small grants initiative, launched in partnership with TDR.
The question of scalability however remains the greatest bottleneck for leveraging innovations in the health sector in many of our countries. The AACHRD proposed a number of options for addressing this challenge including the constitution of a sub-committee on health technologies and innovations which will advocate for this in the region and support the regional office as they work to sustain their support to young and brilliant innovators.
Following this meeting, the AACHRD will continue to meet virtually and advise the Regional office in areas of leadership and governance in health research. They will also guide the formulation of a peer-reviewed journal for the WHO Regional Office for Africa, as well as a strategy for disseminating more information on the state of national health research systems in the region. This can be achieved with the strengthening of the research component of the integrated Africa Health Observatory.
Energy is high and with the reconstitution of the AACHRD, we are optimistic of what lies ahead for our national health research systems!