Involve African research partners from day one, says health chief

Earlier engagement with African research partners will lead to improved outcomes and institutional relations, says global health expert Margaret Gyapong

November 1, 2022
Arusha - Tanzania  March 2016 Safari guide looking at nearby elephant while drinking water in Lake Manyara National Park.

Global health researchers seeking to collaborate with scientists in Africa should involve potential study partners at a much earlier stage if they wish to achieve more effective results, a leading Ghanaian scientist has said.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress, Margaret Gyapong, director of the Centre for Health Policy and Implementation Research at Ghana’s University of Health and Allied Sciences, said she was pleased that universities in the Global North were increasingly involving African academics from day one of potential research projects rather than viewing them as junior partners who would essentially carry out fieldwork on behalf of Western institutions.

“We have moved away from the situation when researchers would say, ‘We want to work with you, but the deadline is only three days away,’” Professor Gyapong, a former deputy director of Ghana’s Health Service, told the summit held at the University of Glasgow.

“I would say, ‘We can’t sign off on this because we didn’t contribute towards it,’” she added.

A recent project co-designed by her university and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to study neglected tropical diseases, which involved extensive early consultation between the two institutions, was a better model for collaboration between Global North and Global South institutions, said Professor Gyapong.

Many research projects led by Global North universities still suffered, however, from a lack of input from local partners, which often undermined the effectiveness of such studies, she added. A project that asked recipients of a new malaria drug to report side-effects by using an app, for instance, ignored the low levels of digital literacy among older adults in Ghana, as well as poor internet connectivity, while the app itself was badly designed, Professor Gyapong explained.

“If I was complaining about this [app’s complexity] as a university professor, how would an older woman living in a village feel if they had to use it to report adverse reactions?” she asked.

Bringing local community, health and academic partners into the design of research projects at an early stage could even be a matter of life or death, added Professor Gyapong, who cited the recent roll-out of a four-dose malaria vaccine as a good example.

“This malaria vaccine was given out in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya, but we had to think about the site [of vaccinations], the timings of vaccines and engaging health workers who sometimes didn’t know exactly what they needed to do,” she said. “It boils down to engaging before you start thinking what technology you might introduce.”

Professor Gyapong said she had enjoyed visiting a physicist at Glasgow with whom she had worked on a new type of low-cost, portable laboratory microscope that could be manufactured in Ghana, and used in health settings, schools or universities. Such examples of in-depth and equitable collaboration should be encouraged, she said.

Her contribution follows recent efforts by UK universities to create more equitable scientific partnerships between British and African universities and avoid “parachute” research in which Western scholars have relatively weak links to Africa-based researchers.

Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have recently announced new funding and PhD bursary schemes to foster stronger links between their institutions and African research universities.

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