31 January 2014

Reflections on the SUNRAY findings: Time for an African Nutrition Research Consortium?

This week saw the long anticipated publication in PLOS Medicine of "Developing a Sustainable Nutrition Research Agenda inSub-Saharan Africa—Findings from the SUNRAY Project" by Carl Lachat, Eunice Nago, Dominique Roberfroid, Michelle Holdsworth, Karlien Smit, Joyce Kinabo, Wim Pinxten, Annamarie Kruger and Patrick Kolsteren.

The 2 year project, funded by the EU, centres on discussions with 117 stakeholders from 40 African countries (by invitation only from the SUNRAY team, above) who shared their views (using participatory methods) on their priorities for nutrition research and actions to create an enabling environment for African research on African nutrition. 

What did they identify? The priority areas for nutrition research identified: "(i) community interventions to improve nutritional status, (ii) behavioural strategies to improve nutritional status, and (iii) food security interventions to improve nutrition."  

What is needed to support the African nutrition research? Priority actions identified for supporting African researchers to generate better evidence(and stimulate further demand from African policymakers) were: "(i) better governance of nutrition research, (ii) alignment of nutrition research funding with priorities identified within SSA, (iii) increased capacity development for nutrition research competencies, and (iv) enhanced information sharing and communication of nutrition research findings."

Some reflections:

  1. This is an important study. It is the first systematic listening exercise about what the African nutrition research community thinks.
  2. Many of the conclusions ring true to me—most of the research on African nutrition is defined outside the region. I don't think this is imperialism, just the lack of opportunity, support and resources to African researchers to publish, profile and share their work.
  3. I do think the governance of nutrition research is part of the problem and part of the solution—I agree with the governance recommendations made. The key is for real partnerships between the African researchers (who have more credibility and knowledge of the context) and western researchers (who have more resources and opportunities). The African Economic Research consortium (AERC) is an example of an African led model (focusing on economic growth) that is built on these partnerships, but with the agenda set by Africans. I would like to see something along these lines (an African Nutrition Research Consortium?) tried in nutrition. If nothing else it would help the nutrition community connect better to the economic policymakers in Africa who know the AERC model.
  4. I thought the problem statement could be defined more clearly. Is the problem mainly that research agendas set outside Africa for Africa tend to focus on the wrong things? Or is it that African policymakers will not listen to research from outside of Africa even if it relates to their country? Or is it just unjust and wrong to have non-Africans so influential in the nutrition policy agenda via research?  I would suspect it is all 3. For sustained national commitment we need policymakers demanding the right evidence and national researchers generating it AND researchers generating evidence that puts pressure on their policymakers. For this to happen the national systems need to thrive. National investment in research is key, but so too is external research support and too often donors are more influenced by their own nationals than by the nationals of the countries they want to support.
  5. While the SUNRAY project has done well in showing that there is an imbalance in terms of who is doing the research, I think the paper would have benefited from doing a better job of showing whether there is a mismatch between what research is needed according to the African research community and what the mainly non-African research community provides. I felt that the comparisons of the African priorities with the 2 papers cited in the paper were not really like for like. And the 3 priorities stated above do not seem (to me at least) terribly out of line with priorities set outside the region. 

But these are quibbles. So my warm congratulations to the SUNRAY team, and I would urge nutrition research investors--African and non African--to be responsive to these recommendations. Ultimately though this pressure has to come from African researchers--SUNRAY is a good start and the pressure must be maintained. 


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