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Academics in Ghana go the extra mile to engage policy-makers

  |   From Science to Action, SUN in Practice

Richmond Aryeetey

University of Ghana School of Public Health
raryeetey@ug.edu.gh

Amos Laar

University of Ghana School of Public Health
alaar@ug.edu.gh

Francis Zotor

University of Health and Allied Sciences School of Public Health
fbzotor@uhas.edu.gh

There is clearly a role for academics, to help generate the evidence, identify existing evidence and support decision makers to make informed policy choices.

Ghana SUN Academic Platform

Objectives of Ghana SUN Academic Platform:

  • To provide technical support to the SUN Movement by connecting all with the best available evidence and building capacity for scaling up effective nutrition interventions
  • To ensure that all ministries, agencies and departments of Government relevant for defeating malnutrition, have the knowledge and capacity to integrate nutrition objectives and strategies into their sector plans.

With a high malnutrition burden, low coverage of effective interventions and limited participation of the research community, the Ghana SUN Academic Platform is supporting decision makers to maximise nutrition impact.

Who does the Platform work with?

The Platform is a non-profit network of academics working on nutrition with a passion for contributing to national level action for scaling up nutrition in Ghana. The Platform has been active since 2013 and has a membership of 10 nutrition researchers from various universities both in and outside Ghana. Together, the members of this Platform are working with the SUN Movement Secretariat in Ghana, and with the SUN Movement Secretariat in Geneva.

Members of the Platform are playing key leadership roles in the SUN Cross-Sectoral Planning Group Working Groups (CSPG WGs). A key contribution to the CSPG has been the desk analysis determining government budgeting and spending on nutrition, as outlined in the National fiscal budget for 2014 (Laar et al PNS 2015 (in press)). The findings of this study were presented at the 2014 African Nutrition Epidemiology Conference (ANEC) and have subsequently been published (Laar et al, 2015, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.;74(4):526-32).

At the global level, the Platform has worked closely with the Global Social Observatory in developing a guidance framework for managing conflict of interest (CoI) amongst partners in the SUN Movement. The Platform participated in two CoI guidance development workshops, held in Accra (2014) and in Geneva (2015). More recently, the Platform has been working closely with the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC) to develop an online platform to facilitate productivity and visibility of the SUN CSPG and its activities. This process is ongoing and is expected to make the CSPG more efficient and overcome communication challenges identified at the last national SUN self-assessment workshop in 2014.

The Ghana SUN Academic Platform has also benefited from close collaboration with the African Nutrition Society (ANS) and the Federation of African Nutrition Societies (FANUS). Both ANS and FANUS are affiliates of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) and have been working together with other nutrition societies from the global north on a joint nutrition eLearning project (eNutritionacademy.org). These partnerships are important to the Platform as they provide an opportunity to contribute to quality improvement among nutrition researchers and for the whole continent.

How does the Platform work?

The Platform has been involved in various nutrition policy and programming activities. It has been instrumental in the drafting, finalising and validating the National Nutrition Policy. Following this validation process, the Platform has helped drive institutional capacity building processes. To support these actions, the Platform is developing various concept a paper on on behalf of the NDPC including papers on nutrition and social protection. The Platform also supports a process to disseminate and communicate what the SUN Movement is doing in Ghana through development of web pages hosted by the NDPC. The assessment of national financing tracking efforts for nutrition was also led by the Platform and started its own commissioned research. The Platform also contributes to the dialogue with other SUN country partners through the SUN Country Network teleconferences.

Current challenges

Since its inception, Ghana’s SUN Academic Platform has identified a number of key challenges:

  1. There is a significant pool of research capacity and experience within academia capable of delivering evidence and capacity building to the SUN Movement, and to inform nutrition policy in Ghana. However, many of these experts have not yet engaged with the Movement nor with policy-making in Ghana.
  2. While there are 10 academics with relevant experience that have expressed their willingness to participate and contribute to the activities of the Ghana SUN Academic Platform, only five of these are currently actively involved with the Platform.
  3. In most developed country settings, health and nutrition policy briefs are based on the best available evidence. Such a systematic process for nutrition policy formulation and implementation does not presently exist in Ghana.
  4. Resource limitations (technical and financial), lacking passion for policy engagement, and the limited engagement of graduate students who help with the work, have restricted the activities of the Platform.

9From Science to Action: Academia and Decision-Makers Unite in SUN CountriesTo address these challenges, Ghana’s SUN Academic Platform hopes to become better equipped at actively recruiting and engaging more academics in contributing to the SUN Movement. This could be achieved by:

  • Building capacity to engage with policy makers
  • Empowering and strengthening the Ghana Nutrition Association to which most of them affiliate
  • Advocating for universities and other research institutions to recognise and reward community service and extension in a similar fashion to peer-reviewed journal publications
  • Creating opportunities for multi-institutional research
  • Creating an enabling environment that will incentivise researchers to engage with policy and program implementation
  • Leveraging technical and financial resources to facilitate capacity building.

In light of this, the Platform has connected itself with EVIDENT (Evidence-informed Decision-making in Health and Nutrition, www.evident-network.org). This network has recently trained two members of the Platform on systematic reviews, which can be used to advise policy. We look forward to transferring this capacity to other academics across Ghana and hopefully encourage them to contribute to nutrition policy implementation.

Through experiences with EVIDENT, the Platform will also seek to work with relevant agencies on the SUN CSPG to advocate for the introduction of a system that promotes demand for evidence-based policy briefs. These briefs will guide decision-making for nutrition policies and program implementation in Ghana. In partnership with the Ghana Nutrition Association, the Platform will also seek opportunities to advocate for recognising the value of academic output in the form of community extension and services to ongoing nutrition programs.

We anticipate that more academic platforms from SUN Countries will spring up across Sub-Saharan Africa. This will create new opportunities for networking and sharing experiences. We also look forward to North-South partnerships that will complement existing South-South partnerships, which support our capacity for improving nutrition.

Key Lessons

  • Capacity building of local nutrition experts is essential. While there are many nutritionists working on policy-relevant issues, they do not yet know how to influence policymakers.
  • No matter how well research studies are designed, they should be informed by programs and programmatic gaps. Much of the research currently being done by local nutritionists does not fit into the current program or program needs.
  • Nutritionists do not have to wait for an invitation letter from policymakers to engage with them. Ghana’s Academic Platform ‘voted with our feet’ to engage. This sometimes involves going into meetings without an invitation, even if it is to be rapporteurs. Eventually, policymakers will take notice and recognise the contribution of nutritionists to the ongoing policy discussions and in bringing evidence to the table.
  • Policymakers sometimes make decisions without reference to evidence for a number of reasons:
    • The evidence is not locally available, or accessible
    • They have made decisions in the past without referring to evidence
    • There is no structured system for using evidence for policy decision making.

There is clearly a role for academics, to help generate the evidence, identify existing evidence and support decision makers to make informed policy choices.

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