Impact Story

Making community engagement central to global health research

Published on 23 August 2022

As health systems around the world grapple with providing care within the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19, IDS has stepped up collaboration with a major funder of global health research to make community engagement central to research on health inequities and complex health problems.

The UK-based National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) funds high quality research that addresses the health needs of people in low and middle-income countries. Over a three-year period, we have been supporting NIHR to build capacity to creatively embrace complexity in health research.

IDS Researcher Dr Erica Nelson led a learning programme of resources and activities to enable potential NIHR-funded researchers to integrate meaningful community engagement and involvement (known as CEI) into research proposals. NIHR sought Dr Nelson’s expertise for the programme following the success of the Resource Guide on Community Engagement and Involvement in Global Health that she wrote for NIHR in 2019.

Through this collaboration, IDS has helped to shift the thinking and practice of this key funding body towards more inclusive, decentred and power-aware approaches to knowledge production. NIHR has since made CEI a strategic priority, has set up a learning clinic for NIHR-funded early career researchers (with the Brighton and Sussex Medical School), and has jointly authored two published journal papers – with another by Dr Nelson in the pipeline.

The work has also affirmed IDS’s position as a thought-leader in supporting research processes that allow for complexity – a goal that is much talked about in global health research but not very often applied.

Sharing the learning

As well as magnifying health inequities, Covid-19 revealed the need to draw on diverse forms of knowledge to solve complex health challenges. It also underlined the intrinsic importance of trust among communities, health practitioners and researchers. Both themes have been core parts of IDS research on health equity over the years.

Through her work with the IDS Accountability for Health Equity programme, Dr Nelson drew on previous relationships to get input from experienced CEI practitioners from Latin America, Africa, Oceania and South Asia for the learning programme. It ran from July 2020 to September 2021, with webinars tailored to coincide with the NIHR global health funding cycle.

Almost two-thirds of the 206 webinar participants came from low- and middle-income research contexts. At the end of the programme, 90 per cent of participants surveyed said that they would apply their learning to future CEI work, proposal development and community collaborations.

The programme comprised three strands – how to empower meaningful CEI; ethical dimensions and considerations; and what it means to take a ‘leave no one behind’ approach to CEI, echoing the 2030 Global Goals. Each strand had a webinar session featuring the CEI experts from the four continents.

Wider NIHR audiences and stakeholders could access recordings of the webinars and the full set of learning resources, plus a video and podcast online: these have achieved more than 110,000 page views on the IDS Institutional Repository since publication in late 2021. To share the learning further afield, these resources were disseminated through IDS’s extensive global multidisciplinary networks.

The NIHR team for CEI praised Dr Nelson and IDS colleagues for delivering such a comprehensive and value-adding programme, particularly during the pandemic. They also noted how worthwhile it was to collaborate with renowned partners such as IDS in this area.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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