Challenges and opportunities for policy-related research capacity building in the MENA region

5 July 2021


Reported by Matthias Meller, CSaP Policy Intern

What can research do to help policymakers from the MENA region approaching health policy questions affected by conflict? And how does that tie in with the latest Integrated Review’s emphasis on the UK as global soft power? In a recent weekly seminar convened by CSaP, Hilda Harb, the policy fellow from the Research for Health in Conflict (R4HC) project, reflected on her fellowship in conversation with Professor Richard Sullivan from King’s College London.

Ms Harb was selected for a two-year R4HC Policy Fellowship alongside her main job as Head of the Department of Health and Vital Statistics at the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon. Between 2018 and 2020, she visited Cambridge and met with academics from CSaP’s network. The R4HC-MENA programme, awarded with a grant by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of their Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is focused on capacity and capability building to develop research strength for health in conflict. With four university partners from the MENA region and three from the UK (including the University of Cambridge, see here), the programme has had a successful track record. The programme’s principal investigator and chair, Professor Sullivan, reported it had “the second-highest output in terms of publications” in UKRI’s grant fund.

Translating scientific evidence and advice into effective policymaking is incredibly challenging in an environment impacted by dramatic political and economic change, such as in Lebanon. Throughout the discussion, Ms Harb recounted that she had explored a wide array of health policy-related topics across her fellowship meetings. Ms Harb’s career has changed directions since the start of her fellowship, and she now manages the Hospital Mortality System, the only national statistical source for causes of death in Lebanon. To further expand the system’s data scope through additional research, she recently started a PhD with the University of Bath. Given a significant shortage of civil servants in Lebanon, particularly in research, Ms Harb advocated for training policymakers in using data to “decrease the importance of the human factor in systems”. Here, she pointed out that in an environment where research is not already part of an organisational structure, it can be challenging to get sufficient political capital behind research capacity building in government institutions. Consequently, she noted that a policy fellowship might impact a policymaker’s work more with a greater focus on research activities and small projects, designed to be light on external procedural requirements. “Dream big but walk in small steps, keeping in mind the change in priorities and contextual policymaking”, she concluded.

Against this backdrop, do we have to reimagine policy-relevant research and capacity building in the MENA region? What is the case for the UK to further supporting such projects? Professor Sullivan reflected that building research capacity and capability through the R4HC-MENA programme has looked very different between academia and policymaking institutions. Most of the GCRF programmes have been skewed towards university-to-university projects. “The big learning coming out of this is that we need to be much more balanced in terms of building this research capacity” to address the needs of government bodies, NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and others, he argued. Research to better inform the work of policymakers needed to be recognised as a different discipline, requiring involved universities to follow a more “hybrid approach” that offers policymakers more than fundamental research. Asked for the case for this project from the UK development assistance perspective, Professor Sullivan highlighted that fostering networks and relationships play into the Integrated Review’s emphasis on UK’s soft power. Long-term relationships with colleagues across countries take time to build but are vital to come together beyond official channels. He suggested that the health policy and research sector are a proven and suitable space for that, not only for the enduring loyalty he has experienced over many years of collaboration with foreign colleagues. In the MENA region, the health and security sectors are often intertwined, making relationships with health research and policy strategically valuable for the UK. Ultimately, “health holds the highest moral ground, and Covid has exposed that it is in the national interest to make sure other health systems are strong”, Professor Sullivan argued. These reasons make the health sector a great space to build relationships, even across partners who hold different beliefs on geopolitics or country relationships.

Matthias Meller

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge