After a vibrant three days of dialogue and discussion, the Africa Evidence Network 2023 Conference has come to an end! Friends have been made; issues discussed at length; insights gained and relationships deepened. The conference is the first face-to-face coming-together of members of the network since COVID19, and their celebration of being ‘in the room together’ was apparent throughout. Participants made the most of their interactions with some 710 researchers, advocates, policymakers and citizens who had travelled from 63 countries for the x sessions. Their mission: to build a knowledge base for EIDM practice.
The conference ended on a note of optimism and ambition for the years ahead. AEN announced that it is changing its name to the Pan African Coalition for Evidence (PACE) to – literally – keep pace with its elevated ambition and determination to drive the move for more systematic and sustained evidence use across the continent.
The final session of the final day saw a panel reflect on EIDM practices shared during the previous three days; review what has been learned so far; identify challenges and improvements needed; and peer into a metaphorical ‘crystal ball’ to describe what lies ahead.
Looking to the future
The speakers and the audience reflected collectively on the most striking themes that arose throughout the three days that highlighted the success of the conference as a whole.
Firstly, the willingness to engage, interact and participate, which demonstrated a spirit of collaboration necessary for moving forwards.
Secondly, bringing policymakers into the discussion as peers of researchers highlighted that we need to take every opportunity to leverage people’s different skills and backgrounds.
Finally, the importance of decoloniality and accessibility when creating, gathering and using evidence, because, as Mirabel Yuh Nain said: ‘If it’s not with us, then it’s not for us.’
This statement captured the proudly African thread that ran through the high quality design, content and performance that was Evidence2023.
Five reflections and three proverbs
Our main takeaways from the conference that we think are key to ensuring EIDM practice has a truly luminous future across the continent:
- The institutionalisation of evidence: We must work to embed evidence in the every-day government routine. This involves making evidence accessible and available at all levels of society.
- The institutionalisation of localised knowledge: A key theme that emerged throughout the conference was to make Indigenous and local knowledge systems a part of the evidence ecosystem. That way, the research cycle can be designed for the purpose and needs of the communities we are trying to help.
- Engaging with citizens: Citizens hold more power than they know. Policymakers are often at pains to be responsive to demands that are clearly expressed by ordinary people, especially when articulated at scale. This means they hold real power. Researchers must engage with citizens, not only as research subjects but as partners in defining the future they want based on evidence of what works. We must connect, build trust and communicate with ordinary people to show them their voices matter.
- Engaging the youth: Andile Madonsela, from the South Africa Centre for Evidence, made the emphatic case for employing young (not young-ish!) people in the evidence ecosystem and creating an enabling space for them. They are the future of EIDM, so they should be given the tools to take on that responsibility one day.
- Addressing AI biases: We already see the inequity and bias issues that AI tools such as ChatGPT have implicitly built into them. As such, we should not approach innovation from a ‘one size fits all’ perspective, or we risk widening inequality and inequity in terms of access to evidence between groups.
Overall, the success of Evidence2023 has demonstrated that while there is still much work to do, the conversations that have taken place have been crucial for setting a common goal and commitment to make EIDM a reality.
Rhona Mijumbi, co-chair of the network and Director of the Center for Rapid Evidence Synthesis (ACRES), summed up how the conference had – and the network would – work together to make it happen: with Africa at its heart and its people’s knowledge as its foundations. Three African proverbs capture perfectly this spirit and practice of collaboration:
A single stick may smoke, but it will not burn
A single bracelet does not jingle
A person’s wealth is not in the bank; it is in their relationships
R2A are collaborating with AEN as communication partners for Evidence 2023. To view more related content from AEN and Evidence 23 please visit our dedicated AEN Evidence 23 page!