Beyond ‘context matters’: Learning from the African evidence community

Using Evidence cover

Ruth E. Levine

‘Wouldn’t it be great if the evidence-to-policy work we’re seeing on the rise in Africa could be visible to a wider audience?’ That was the question my colleagues at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and I had on our minds in 2017, seeing the creativity and resourcefulness of a host of organisations and champions from the region as they advanced a complex agenda. Now, just a few years later, the opportunity to learn from African experiences is realised in the volume Using Evidence in Policy and Practice: Lessons from Africa, edited by Ian Goldman and Mine Pabari (Routledge, 2020). The book, which both articulates a conceptual framework for thinking about the elements of a contextually-determined evidence ecosystem and presents eight case studies about diverse experiences, adds immeasurably to the literature on evidence-informed decision making.

The importance of hearing directly from African policy makers and practitioners cannot be overstated. For many in the field of global development, ‘evidence’ connotes the product of academic research, often funded and designed in organisations in the Global North. ‘Evidence use’ may bring to mind demands of funding agencies, eager to make sure that the research they are supporting is not gathering dust on the shelf, but instead is influencing decisions in government ministries and non-governmental organisations. In all of this discourse, external actors posit repeatedly that ‘context matters’, ‘capacity is limited’ and ‘politics interferes with evidence uptake’, while both the long-standing and emergent work of African monitoring and evaluation professionals gets little airtime. Using Evidence in Policy and Practice: Lessons from Africa seeks to correct this imbalance and draw out lessons for peers across the region.

After reading the case studies, here are the lessons that stood out for me:

  • Context does indeed matter, but ‘context’ is not some capacious concept that can never be defined or analysed. In shaping prospects for evidence use in decision making, the features of context that are most important have to do with (a) whether the fiscal and political space exists for decision makers to act differently than they would have in the absence of new data, or findings from research or evaluation; and (b) whether decision makers are facing pressure from outside the government to take new information on board. These are features of the context that can be observed, helping those who are seeking to advance the agenda of evidence-informed decision making target their efforts more efficiently. And they are features that can, in concept, be changed through concerted effort and dedicated resources. For example, bolstering the strength of civil society organisations to use and share data from government sources, or to collect their own information, can be an important complement to investments in evaluation and research within government. On this latter point, the case study in Ghana highlights the ways in which a data-focused civil society organisation kept up steady pressure on the local governments to improve sanitation services.
  • Capacity is limited, but the skill sets that are most needed are in the domains of management, facilitating evidence processes and knowledge brokering and dialogue, rather than solely research methods. All of the case studies shine a light on the importance of trust between the provider and recipient of evidence products, like evaluation reports. Moreover, all parties need to speak the same language that crosses the boundary between research and practice. The cases demonstrate that success in evidence uptake requires that information is communicated in ways that are understandable to non-technical audiences, with special attention to how to interpret the implications of evidence at a particular moment in the design or implementation of policies and programs. In the book’s case study on violence prevention in South Africa, for example, a multi-stakeholder forum created opportunities for ongoing exchange between subject matter specialists and a range of interested parties with non-technical backgrounds but much to offer around political and social feasibility of recommendations.
  • Politics can interfere with evidence use – but political risks can be mitigated. In general, politicians want to maintain power, and deferring to ‘what the evidence says’ about the efficient allocation of resources, or the right populations to focus program attention on, is essentially a loss of the power of discretionary choices. Several cases in the book highlight the ways in which establishing systems of data and evidence use. In Benin, Uganda and South Africa, the National Evaluation Systems formalise requirements for evaluations, competencies and standards, quality benchmarks, peer review mechanisms and other codified elements that lift evaluation as far as possible away from transient political decision making.

Using Evidence in Policy and Practice: Lessons from Africa does not shy away from the complexities of the evidence agenda on the African continent – a continent with far more of it share of challenges, many of them the result of historical exploitation. But the book also offers a way to see the glass half-full because in its pages we hear directly from professionals inside and out of government who are committed to better lives and livelihoods through generating and sharing knowledge.


By Ruth E. Levine, CEO, IDinsight

Image credit: Using Evidence in Policy and Practice: Lessons from Africa cover, Taylor & Francis Group


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Evidence-based policy, knowledge from experience and validity [Open Access]

Knowledge, evidence, expertise? The epistemics of experience in contemporary healthcare [Open Access]

Co-creative approaches to knowledge production: what next for bridging the research to practice gap? [Open Access]

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