“… Policymaking is rarely ‘evidence-based’…” (Mayne et al., 2018)
What the authors of the above quotation go on to clarify, is that at best, policy can be informed by research and evidence, and then only if those who seek to promote evidence within the policy space act effectively, and perhaps more important, decisively. However, although linking research and policy is strongly encouraged by research funding agencies and organisations, the uptake of research evidence by policymakers remains weak (Erismann, 2021:2). The limitations of political decision-making present major barriers in this regard, and are visible in a variety of forms, including bargaining, entrenched commitments, and the interplay of diverse stakeholder values and interests which conflict with established evidence (Head, 2010). While these challenges do remain prevalent, scholars and policymakers alike have developed a variety of techniques and strategies to improve evidence-based policy practices. This short brief will explore some 0f these practices, with a special focus on real-world implementation in the African context.
Evidence-based policy: obstacles, opportunities and recommendations
A key step in increasing the efficacy of the evidence-to-policy pipeline is to ensure that scientists, researchers, and scholars in general become more familiar with the intricacies of policy implementation so that they can adjust their work accordingly (Mayne et al., 2018). This also means engaging with stakeholders and local communities in order for researchers to contextualise the work they are doing and thus offer policymakers more relevant, applicable real-world data.
Part of this process would require embracing trial and error (or learning by doing) and designing and using additional influencing strategies (Mayne et al., 2018) – the latter referring to framing evidence in a manner that resonates with the target audiences. By engaging stakeholders in the research process, the relevance, influence, and impact of the research can be increased. Erismann et al., (2021) in particular, identify several key strategies to employ in stakeholder engagement in order to facilitate successful research-to-policy uptake. In essence, involving stakeholders directly, encouraging regular and extensive participation, and stimulating the co-production of knowledge contributes massively to the linkages between evidence and practice. Water governance in Africa presents a case in point.
Navigating transboundary water governance in Africa
Research-based water governance is often difficult due to the complexity – or impossibility – of experimentation in a real-world setting (Hutema et al., 2009). In the African context especially, where the issue of water resources is often a transboundary one, water governance becomes all the more complex due to the necessity of engaging multiple stakeholders with vastly differing interests. However, examination has revealed that water governance issues are less about seeking optimisation of a single outcome, and more about polycentric governance, public participation, experimentation – especially iterative, learning-by-doing procedures – and adopting a bioregional approach to management (see again, Hutema et al., 2009). This would include asking stakeholders to map out their contestations and deliberations and allowing them to take ownership of their collective water issues whilst researchers play a supportive role (Fallon, Lankford & Weston, 2021).
The importance of stakeholder engagement in this context cannot be overstated. It is through extensive, programmatic stakeholder consultation that the primary evidence base for policymaking and resource mobilisation is increasingly constructed – often to great effect. Research suggests, for example, that the top-down approach to disaster management in South Africa constrains the effectiveness of institutions implementing local drought risk reduction procedures (Makaya et al., 2020). Experts concluded that water and drought governance endeavours could be enhanced by greater and wider stakeholder engagement. This can be done through participatory mapping, workshops, and citizen science, not only to gain local insights, but to encourage the involvement of local actors in the process (Fallon, Lankford & Weston, 2021:36).
This is a radical departure from the post-colonial funding strategies of the Global North s0 prevalent in Africa in the mid- to late-20th century. Where before, massive international financial institutions (IFIs) might have mobilised investment with little to no ground-level knowledge, the contemporary approach strictly emphasises the need for consistent, widespread stakeholder participation in order to properly gauge local need.
Figure 1. The Limpopo River Basin
How does this play out on the ground?
Valuable insight is available from relevant project experience into the benefits of applying policies and practices which are themselves informed by reliable, expert research and evidence – backed up and validated by rigorous participatory analysis with stakeholders.
OneWorld was responsible for the water and climate change component of the Resilience in the Limpopo Basin (RESILIM) programme, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Limpopo River Basin (LRB) supports four countries: Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and the RESILIM project was implemented in the context of two years of poor agricultural production in the region – with some areas reporting 100% crop losses – 4 million people affected by severe drought, 1.2 million facing food insecurity, and the Gaborone dam drying up completely. The approach employed by OneWorld necessitated “the navigation of a complex set of geopolitical, economic, and institutional issues, as well as the competing sovereign interests that underpin national economic growth” (Petrie et al., 2014:3).
In order to mitigate the region’s climate vulnerability, conserve its biodiversity, and enhance the capacity of stakeholders involved in the area’s management, the project helped produce a substantial, diverse body of research on the LRB. In total, 25 in-depth scientific reports were published which directly contributed to the enactment of 38 “policies and management plans” across the basin (Chemonics, 2017:III). OneWorld also produced two policy briefs for the project, namely: “Managing for change: Practical integrated water resource management and climate solutions for Limpopo” and “Securing the future of the Limpopo River Basin system – An Investment Strategy and action plan for building resilience”. Both works provide invaluable contextual clarity on the project’s operation, the foundational importance of stakeholder engagement and investment, and potential water governance and environmental outcomes in the region.
The results of such an evidence-to-practice approach have been substantial. Follow-up reporting on the project overall (not only the water and climate component) indicates that, amongst other achievements, up to 4500 men, women and children received training on water conservation, protection of biodiversity, and climate change adaptation. Along with this, 1.1 million acres of at-risk land were conserved through community-driven initiatives – a direct result of the project’s efforts.
Mobilising resources and investment
While these outcomes do demonstrate clear benefits stemming from the uptake of research in policy implementation, it is in investment mobilisation where the value of the “theory-to-practice” framework becomes most apparent. Leveraging investment, whether public or private, is a fundamental part of the development process. Within RESILIM’s climate change and water component, OneWorld developed an investment strategy – based on significant desktop research and field work – with the intention of “unlock[ing] potential flows in the basin, thus enabling achievement of multiple goals of the four riparian countries” (Petrie et al., 2015:9). A core component of OneWorld’s research approach involved stakeholder engagement at all levels. First understanding the needs, capacities and desires of individuals, groups, businesses, and communities in the basin was imperative to creating an effective investment framework. This approach embodies the fundamentals of the research-to-policy / theory-to-practice logic, in that it relies heavily on relevant, local-level evidence gathering to inform the practical application of investment mobilisation.
The Investment Strategy itself functions as a ‘tool’ which helps mobilise and streamline investment funding. Through development of a matrix, potential investors are matched with investment actions that are most relevant to their objectives and area of expertise.
Figure 2. OneWorld Investment Matrix for the LRB
On another project, OneWorld is currently supporting AU-NEPAD’s African Water Investment Programme (AIP) – implemented by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) – which was launched in 2019. The broad goals of the AIP are focused not only on narrowing Africa’s growing water investment gap, but also on targeting cross-cutting issues related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and gender sensitive/inclusive water investments, to build water-energy-food (WEF) security, climate and gender resilience, as well as enhanced transboundary water governance.
In line with this, OneWorld has been tasked with identifying specific, regionally relevant opportunities to which GWP and partners’ activities can be aligned, and which increase their chances of potential impact. This includes the development of five separate AIP Regional Resource Mobilisation Strategies for five different African regions. These mobilisation strategies are reminiscent of OneWorld’s work on RESILIM in that they also map potential investors to investment opportunities based on their existing capacities and capabilities – ascertained through considerable stakeholder engagement and research. A key insight in this regard is that stakeholder engagement, or participatory analysis that validates research, is a powerful informant of policy development.