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Research evidence can close Africa’s policy implementation gap

Edidah Lubega Ampaire portrait

Edidah Lubega Ampaire

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

National delegations have spent months preparing for the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. One of their major tasks during COP24, currently taking place in Katowice, Poland, will be to adopt decisions, actions, and regulations that effectively implement the Paris Agreement.

Policy reforms are widely considered to play an important role in enhancing resilience, but we need to ensure that these policies and regulations are implemented. For example, despite having numerous policies and strategies in place, climate change has taken a back seat in Tanzania. Similarly, despite the existence of country visions, guiding policies, national development plans, and agricultural strategies, the African Union’s biennial review shows that the East Africa region scored below average in implementing the 2014 Malabo Declaration in regards to enhancing investment finance in agriculture; ending hunger by 2025; and enhancing resilience to climate variability.

Despite countries and localities embracing participatory and other inclusive approaches, as was the case of developing the Uganda NAPA, the implementation gap remains undoubtedly large. It is therefore evident that having an evidence-based policy in place does not guarantee that interventions will be implemented on the ground. Rather, there is a need to put in place deliberate measures that translate policy provisions into actions. Applying evidence to inform policy development and facilitating processes for evidence uptake can solve the glaring challenge of poor policy implementation.

Stimulating effective policy implementation

Applying evidence to inform and enforce policy implementation helps decision-makers address perceived constraints using the most feasible strategies, resulting in uptake of the proposed interventions.Examples include using zinc to supplement oral rehydration salts in treating children under five suffering from diarrhea in Bangladesh; the tobacco control law in West Africa, which started in Senegal and has been scaled out to the Economic Community of West African States; and  the Imihigo program of Rwanda that has reinforced development planning, implementation, and evaluation of interventions and contributed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Interventions for using research evidence should address linkages across different governance scales but target the most relevant. Whereas national policies are largely developed by the central government, they are implemented at the county, district, and sub-county levels. In practice, these levels are autonomous and create and implement their own development plans, which are mandated to reflect (and as a result implement) national-level development priorities.

It is also important to note that development planning follows a defined timeframe that is synchronized, in time and space, across governance scales. The lower governance structures undertake planning first, feeding their development priorities to higher levels. With respect to financial investment in development initiatives, a district, for example in Uganda, can fund a project only if it is registered in the district project profile (an aggregation of priority projects to which a budget has been allocated).

What needs to be done?

For evidence to benefit policymaking and result in effective implementation, several conditions must be met. Firstly, the evidence must address a perceived need, either in the local context or at the national level, as well as align with government development priorities. The research that informed the tobacco law in Senegal was stimulated by the lack of legal enforcement of a twenty-year tobacco ban by the Touba community.

Secondly, evidence must be embedded in the government development planning structures and processes with the intent of informing the development of projects that will ultimately be implemented. In the Imihigo initiative, performance contracts were developed and implemented with the involvement of communities, local councils, district executive committees, and officials from the central government. Similarly, tobacco research findings in West Africa were presented to high-level policymakers from the region, leading to the development and adoption of a new ECOWAS regional tobacco taxation directive.  

Thirdly, there must be functional structures in place that ensure uptake of the generated evidence. The structures could be committees or task forces that enforce implementation as planned. Since development planning cuts across sectors, and the implementation of interventions is achieved by many actors, a variety of key stakeholders should be involved to plan and implement jointly. The zinc case is one example: researchers, private sector actors, ministry of health officials, NGOs, and communities came together to jointly popularize the use of zinc for treating diarrhea. Similarly, the implementation of the Imihigo program was coordinated by an inter-ministerial committee that  worked with lawyers, the ministry of health, and a civil society organization to develop the law.

Lastly, it is crucial to impart skills and provide tools so that projects are sustainable in the long-term. In the zinc case, efforts were made to train professionals and the zinc treatment was introduced to the public, private, and NGO delivery systems. Structures were also put in place for monitoring and for further research to feed implementation on an on-going basis.

The discussions at COP24 could make a great contribution in addressing the policy implementation gap if they include how the decisions, actions, and regulations they adopt will be implemented.