Arab divisions: how can the rich Gulf help the poor Maghreb build research capacity?

March 4, 2013

Andrea Rinaldi

Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



The need for networking and the challenges posed by diversity within the vast Arab world are two of the issues that emerged prominently from the Boosting research for health in the new Arab world meeting in Bellagio, north Italy which ended on Friday (1 March).

No one doubts that much cooperation and coordination will be necessary in order to tackle the research for health demand, but it is honestly difficult to see how virtually failed states such as Somalia, economically advanced realities like the Gulf States, and the Maghreb and Mashriq countries with their variable income levels, can be brought together to put forward a unified vision for public health in the region.

Up to now, there has been very limited dialogue among these countries, and not only regarding research- or science-related issues (the overall value of trade exchange between Arab countries, for example, is low). However, those involved in the health research agenda are positive that diversity in the Arab world, if wisely used, can actually benefit the requested change, as delegates present at the Bellagio meeting told SciDev.Net.

“Diversity should be perceived as an important factor for complementarity instead of a reason for division,” said Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development in Beirut, Lebanon. “There is the necessity to create processes at various levels that must include academia and research. I’m aware of many existing initiatives among different universities and research centers focusing on health from different countries of the region.”

Samer Jabbour, from the Faculty of Health Sciences of the AmericanUniversity of Beirut, Lebanon, said: “All countries have a stake in cooperation as it will promote development and contribute to stability and legitimacy. Regional cooperation based on solidarity is simply the right thing to do. But we need to push, and from the bottom up, for this to happen in light of a prior history of poor functioning of formal regional platforms for common work. This is the task ahead of us.”

The role of the Gulf States might play in the effort is a matter of particular importance, given both their economic prominence and the considerable resources some of them, notably Qatar, dedicate to R&D.

Hanan Abdul Rahim, at QatarUniversity in Doha, Qatar, said: “There is a great interest in the Gulf in developing R&D systems. For example, Qatar partners with well known international universities in specific fields, such as medicine, engineering, and computer science, and links to a number of international research initiatives.”

“At the same time, the Qatar National Research Fund presents an opportunity for research collaborations with all parts of the world. Regional and international collaborations are not mutually exclusive. One does not have to preclude the other,” said Rahim.

But some believe that, in order to lead the research-for-health revolution in the new Arab world, the Gulf States must genuinely believe in their spearheading function while seriously reconsidering their attitude towards neighbours and potential partners.

“Regarding the Gulf states, many in the region want to see them play a greater role in promoting health and development,” said Jabbour. “This is another subject for advocacy for those interested in promoting research for health and development.”

But Abdel Samad said that “Gulf countries are supporting other Arab and Islamic countries; they are even considered among the largest donors worldwide. However, most of their donations are dedicated to charity and faith based initiatives. Few of these donations are directed to fund development programs and research projects.”

There is a lack of structured and transparent process of selecting partners and programs, and the way support is channelled is often conditioned by subjective choices, which highly affects the impact of allocated funds, argued Abdel Samad.

“This is a source of frustration which is leading people in the Arab world to rather address foreign donors that have their own requirements and conditions,” said Abdel Samad. “The objective is to advocate the Arab donors in order to motivate them to change this perception, and to create a properly transparent system, participatory methodologies and efficient strategies for implementation.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Health research in the Arab world needs a ‘Big Idea’

February 28, 2013

Andrea Rinaldi

Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



Work progresses at the Boosting research for health in the new Arab world meeting in Bellagio, north Italy. Today, discussion shifted from general topics to more practical issues.

Working groups gathered to think on country-specific needs for health research system strengthening, focusing on three main aspects: regional strategy and plan of action, engaging partners and building networks, funding perspectives.

The fund-raising problem is of course a crucial one, so a large part of the broader discussion that followed was devoted to explore possible avenues to get potential donors and financing bodies involved. Since the all initiative of strengthening health research in the Arab world is brand new, and the group of people that is coordinating the effort met here for the first time, one should not be surprised to know that only vaguely shaped plans were brought to the table so far. However, good, solid common ground was found to build on by selecting shared pointers for future action.

First, delegates agreed on the need for coming out with a ‘Big Idea’ about boosting health research as a driver of improvement of public health, advancement of fairness of health and equity, and socio-economic development in the region.

This should be something that captures imagination of donors and funding bodies, while being amenable to be efficiently communicated and appealing to politicians and the lay public as well.

“Something exciting is needed, but I still don’t see it here. This is necessary not only, or primarily, to allure donors, but to have a sharp vision of the common goal to achieve,” said Ibrahim Daibes, from the Canada-based aid agency International Development Research Centre, confirming that work has to be done in this direction.

Another consultation, opened to a larger panel of researchers, policymakers and stakeholders, will be held in a 6-months time frame to develop the ‘Big Idea’ concept further.

It was also noted that for the change to become structural and to impact substantially on health and related societal issues, donors will not be enough, but rather national governments need to be convinced to allocate appropriate resources to R&D in the health sector in their budget over a long period of time.

This – in a region where health and R&D expenditure is (with a few exceptions) relatively low (but that, on the other side, boasts the highest ratio of military expenditures as a percentage of GDP in the world) – is not going to be easy, as those around the table here in Bellagio are well aware.

Certainly, a carefully planned communication strategy will be key to the project, both to persuade international funding agencies to take the risk of investing in research in countries in conflict and transition and to raise advocacy at the national and regional level. “We have to speak clear, so to be sure that people don’t think we are asking for money just to fund our own research or academic institutions,” said Hoda Rashad, from the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Health research in the Arab world can benefit from experiences in Africa and Latin America

February 27, 2013

Andrea Rinaldi

Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



Future work needed to develop efficient health research systems in Arab countries can find a good starting point in previous experiences from other regions of the world. This is the main take-home message of the talk by Francisco Becerra, COHRED, staged today at the Boosting research for health in the new Arab world meeting in Bellagio, north Italy.

“COHRED aims to make an essential contribution to improve health, equity and development around the world. While there are many ways to do so, we focus on research and innovation – by and for low- and middle income-countries and populations,” said Becerra. “Our focus is on the systems needed for research and innovation for health. We believe that strong systems produce more and better research and innovation, with a greater relevance to the country and its population.”

Group at work at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center

Group at work at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center

Becerra presented COHRED work in Africa and Latin America, often performed in close collaboration with key regional partners, such as the New Partnership for African Development Agency (NEPAD) and the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO). In Latin America and the Caribbean, COHRED has developed regional and country based activities. Most notable is the work with Paraguay, which led to a presidential decree on research and innovation for health; and the collaboration with Uruguay on the establishment of a financial mechanism for research for health.

“A key aspect of COHRED’s work is to facilitate exchange and interaction among countries in a region. We strongly believe in this exchange with peers to stimulate research and innovation development,” Becerra said. “Regional meetings were therefore organised in Latin America in the recent past, and a knowledge exchange workshop for the African countries was organised in 2012 in Tanzania.”

Each country has its own peculiarities and needs specifically tailored solutions, experience shows. Also, countries are called to invest in their own systems, and to strengthen research and innovation capacity. If this does not happen and countries themselves are not interested, there is little that can be done through external aid.

“What is happening in the Arab world? Is there a similar interest in research and innovation and an assertiveness to take this development into own hands? What are the key political and regional players, and how can organisations such as COHRED make a meaningful contribution to research and innovation in the region?” asked Becerra. These are the questions the Bellagio meeting and subsequent discussions will aim to answer.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Arab academic institutions need rethinking to improve health outcomes

February 27, 2013

Andrea Rinaldi

Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Brainstorming discussion is taking place at the ‘Boosting research for health in the new Arab world’ meeting in Bellagio, north Italy. The common view presented so far is that health is both a causative agent and an end-point of development, and that health research is a major driver of the entire process.

“Health is a societal good, not the exclusive interest of the Ministries of Health,” said COHRED Director Carel IJsselmuiden.

Iman Nuwayhid, from the Faculty of Health Science of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, spoke about the role academic institutions can play in fostering the shaping of national health research strategies in Arab countries.

“Academic institutions are partly responsible for the status of research in the region,” said Nuwayhid. “On one hand, they have suffered from regional conflicts, lack of funding, a dearth of qualified researchers, lack of institutional collaboration, and restrictions on free scientific inquiry and access to information. On the other hand, these institutions have accepted the status quo and some have even served as a mouthpiece for the political regimes.”

However, exceptions exist, Nuwayhid added, and a few centers of excellence present models that are distinct but homegrown and worth scaling up in the region. “Building a regional network of such core academic institutions is no doubt a strict pre-requisite for any effort to support and shape research for health in the region,” Nuwayhid said.

According to the data presented by Nuwayhid, the Arab world is, at least on paper, well equipped with both public and private higher institutions (some 1,200) and universities (more than 400), with good geographic spread.

Quality, of course, differs greatly.

The Ranking Web of Universities (also known as Webometrics Ranking) in its last edition lists some 726 higher education institutions in the Arab world, with world rank position running from 420 (King Saud University, Saudi Arabia) down to 21,100!

As the UNESCO Science Report 2010 remarked, poorer countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are home to some of the oldest universities in the Arab world, and can be seen as regional leaders in terms of S&T human resources and scientific publications. On the other hand, institutions based in the Gulf States “have the material and financial resources to carry out R&D but lack the solid S&T and higher education systems to generate knowledge”.

But for academic institutions to be engaged as authoritative catalyzers of the transformation in the Arab world, they first have to rethink themselves. As an instructive example, Nuwahyd quoted the Kasr Al-Ainy School of Medicine of the Cairo University, inaugurated back in 1827, where teaching faculty is limited to graduates from the same institution.

“The uprisings in the Arab World have confirmed that people are ready for change. Academic institutions in this region are simultaneously the target of such a demand as well as the beacon of hope and change. It is a dilemma that we all, and especially donors and international organisations, need to face,” Nuwahyd said. “We have to invest heavily in academic institutions of this region. It is a leap of faith that we cannot afford missing. If entrusted, academic institutions will deliver.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Mapping national health research systems across the Arab world

February 26, 2013

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Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The Boosting research for health in the new Arab world meeting officially takes off today, in Bellagio, north Italy. Delegates from several Arab countries and representatives of the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) and of other institutions are swarming in, while sessions will begin early tomorrow.

Among the background papers distributed to participants in advance of the conference, several deal with the crucial aspect of the evaluation of the national health research systems (NHRS) of Arab countries. This is not trivial matter, as no comparable international indicator of the quantity/quality of health research exists.

An easily feasible – although admittedly limited – approach is to count medical research publications by researchers based in institutions in each country, as proposed by Martin McKee (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and colleagues in a recent PLoS Medicine study. According to this indicator, the performance of Arab countries is (not surprisingly) a mixed bag, with countries such as Yemen and Somalia laying close to the bottom of the rank, and others, like Tunisia, doing fairly well, especially considering the available resources.

Other NHRS-mapping studies analysed the situation in the Arab word by using a more holistic approach, in particular trying to focus on the most important (but maybe most elusive to measure) outcome of health research: improved health of people, fair access to health care services, and reduced health inequities.

Using such a conceived method, COHRED-associated researchers have assessed the NHRS in most Arab countries, and recently published a study that completes the baseline information on health research systems in the region. In this last work five countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine and Syria) agreed to map their NHRS and collect information on research policies and regulations, governance and management mechanisms (including ethics review boards), and institutions that commission, produce and use research.

More soon.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


More and better health research is needed in the Arab world

February 25, 2013

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Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The day is coming. Tomorrow, 26 February, a meeting on ‘Boosting research for health in the new Arab world’ will begin in Bellagio, north Italy. Before formal discussion kicks off, we asked Hassen Ghannem, senior consultant to the Geneva-based Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) and meeting organizer, about the background and objectives of the conference.

What is the current situation of health research in the Arab countries?

“Policymakers in the developed world understand that research, science and technology are vital components of economic growth and prosperity. But, in the Arab world, translating this realization into policies and actions backed by resource commitments has been a major challenge.

In particular, weaknesses of research for health in the Arab world are seen in three areas: low investment in research and development; weak national health research systems, with considerable fragmentation and little or no coordination at the national and international level; poor scientific production and impact, as a result of low investment and weak systems.”

In your personal opinion, what is to be done to change this situation? Is the Arab Spring going to have a significant impact on the status quo?

“This region is currently experiencing major historical changes with the aspiration to freedom, democracy and more equitable development. Research for health is essential to understanding the current and future projected health needs of the population and developing approaches and solutions that can contribute to health improvements.

Because research for health and national systems of research for health have been weak in the region, this time of change creates a historic opportunity to undertake key strategic actions in research and innovation, with particular focus on strengthening national systems of research for health leading to improvements in health and development. This could be done, among other things, by engaging policymakers and stakeholders to equip them with tools and skills needed for making informed decisions, and by hosting dialogues and consultative meetings to bring a range of stakeholders together to facilitate policy dialogues leading to more commitment to fund research in the region.”

What do you hope will come out of the Bellagio’s meeting?

“The overall goal is to end up with a strong call to action to strengthen system capacity for research and innovation for health in the Arab world, and to develop an effective communication strategy to disseminate and keep this alive until the regional conference that is planned for later this year or 2014.”

Stay tuned.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


New opportunities in a changing landscape

April 27, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan


African countries are at a turning point, where they have an opportunity to invest in research capacity and ‘leapfrog’ over research institutions in other parts of the world.

This was the optimistic message from Val Snewin, international activities manager for Britain’s Wellcome Trust, who was addressing a session of Forum 2012 on the topic of developing research capacity.

Snewin said that, in light of the recession in Europe and the United States, and set against positive economic growth in Africa, a new opportunity presented itself for African research capability.

Getting fitter: new opportunities are opening up for health research in Africa (Credit: Flickr/Oxfam)

“The world is shifting on its axis here,” she said. “But very few national governments are stepping up and engaging with it. We need political will, and for governments to invest in research capacity, where they can afford it.”

Two examples were Ghana and Tanzania, both of which were showing commitment to creating research and innovation.

Rene Loewensen, of EQUINET in Zimbabwe, said that a changing landscape, in which countries were being encouraged to take charge of their own health research agendas, also brought an opportunity to shift the paradigm of how research is carried out.

Previously the focus had been on building capacity in research institutions in universities, she said. Now there was a need to extend this research to a broader context.

Placing research capacity in the community and in health services would enable it to be more responsive to the needs of both the community and the country.

“It allows us to look at the real world, rather than at theoretical issues,” said Loewensen.

But this new focus on community and multidisciplinary research had also brought new challenges, such as how to keep track of quality in a rapidly changing field.

Yogan Pillay, deputy director general of the South African health department, said that policymakers were increasingly recognising the importance of research, but were now seeking an answer to “how to make it happen”.

The questions they faced were around the implementation of research results, and scaling them up to make a wide impact.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 


Declarations, dancing… but will the Forum deliver action?

April 3, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


In an evening of a cosy buffet and free flowing drinks, many at the Forum’s conference dinner discussed Africa’s love of conferences and the lack of implementation of their outcomes.

Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, who was the host, could have not been more apt in terming the continent “a sleeping giant with tons of declarations with nothing being done to fulfil them.”

And she said she hoped that at the end of the Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation that scenario would change.

“I hope tomorrow will mark the end of declarations for Africa and we must translate these outcomes into development,” she said.

She had some food for thought for the delegates, that unlocking the continent’s potential won’t come from meetings and resolutions but on the ability of her people to wake up the giant and give it the much needed push to development.

“It’s time for science, technology and innovation in Africa and there is no short cut. We must do it. We want solutions that will work. Practical solutions for practical problems,” Kamar said.

The dinner was also a chance for delegates to relax after a long day’s deliberations, with African beats belching out from big speakers.  There was talents galore in footwork, and some very intricate and rare dance steps.  It was a reminder that everyone there, irrespective of their stations in public life — academics, diplomats, and even journalists like me — have many other gifts… including dancing.

Nonetheless, Kamar’s remarks echoed what has been said in many other places, at other meetings in other posh hotels, where excellent declarations have been made that rarely translate into tangible solutions for Africa’s people, the majority of whom are trapped in abject poverty.

Africa can only come unstuck with a paradigm shift, not business as usual.

We are now waiting to see how — and whether — this Nairobi meeting that had at its theme the promotion of Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive growth will contribute to bringing about real change.


Forum hears calls for more Africa-centred research

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


More laboratories for companies offering science and technology solutions and products targeting African challenges need to be located in Africa, in order to make these services more affordable to African consumers, the African Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation has heard.

At a plenary session today, rapporteurs read out out recommendations made at each session from the first two days of the forum — which have included a series of parallel meetings today on topics ranging from water and sanitation, to E-health  and food security. The recommendations will be discussed at the ministerial meeting on the final day of the forum tomorrow.

Delegates at the plenary heard that as well as improving affordability, the presence of such laboratories would improve the ability of researchers and students to access relevant knowledge.

Rapporteurs said delegates had commented that the concentration of high-tech facilities in the western world and parts of Asia were failing to benefit African innovators, especially in the area of knowledge-sharing — with distance cited a significant factor.

“High-tech labs are out of reach of many African innovators and scientists” was one conclusion read out by Thierry Ammoussougbo, rapportuer and  staffer with the UN Commission for Africa (UNECA). “Many firms selling products here do not make their products in Africa,” he continued.

Calls for more ST&I labs in Africa

The forum has heard calls for better training and working conditions to encourage African scientists to stay on the continent.

The first two days of the Forum have also been characterised by general calls for an African Science Academy to be established to boost ST&I on the continent and nurture young talent.

While funding for such an initiative could potentiall be sourced from international donors, many delegates have said that African states need to fund ST&I work in their respective countries in order to retain control over the funding and direction of various disciplines.

“They must be able to raise their own funds which they can control away from relying purely on donor funding,” was a conclusion read to the plenary by Ammoussougbo.

It was further felt that a realistic plan of action that would involve the continent’s science and technology government ministers needed to be developed by each country’s delegation, in order to help move the ST&I agenda “from talk to action”.

Further, the mainstreaming of science, technology and mathematics teaching in all institutions of learning — from primary school to university — and the encouragement of experts from the African diaspora abroad to collaborate and share knowledge with the continent was recommended.

Another recommendation was for the improved training of lecturers, and the implementation of deliberate measures to improve their working conditions was necessary in order to retain African experts at home.

Finally, the plenary heard calls for the establishment of regional and national ST&I forums, and improved communication of ideas with the wider public, to encourage all Africans to better appreciate the role of science, technology and innovation in national development .


Better support needed for Africa e-health solutions

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


While mobile phones use has expanded at an astonishing rate in Africa, this on its own is insufficient to bring so-called E-health solutions to the millions of people living in remote, poor rural areas.

Cellphone use must be complemented by other relevant technologies, infrastructure and applications that will ensure the cost of accessing health ICT is made cheaper and cost effective, the first African conference on Science Technology and Innovation for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth was told on Monday.

“We must never over-rely on mobile phones alone as a means of delivering E-health, and must move to other technologies such telemedicine and video conferencing — which could be a bit expensive, but whose cost can be brought down if we start manufacturing of the requisite devices here in Africa,” said Robert  Jalang’o of the Multimedia University College of Kenya.

Mobile phone use has expanded enormously in Africa

Mobile phone use has expanded enormously in Africa, but the conference heard other technologies and infrastructure is needed to roll out e-health solutions to all the continent's peoples.

Mr Jalang’o addressed a session on E-health at the conference, which is underway in Nairobi, saying that the high cost of foreign technologies must be brought down if ICT use in the sector is to be fully realised. This, he said, needed to involve undergraduate and post-graduate students  in producing these technologies, which he added would not only give them specialist knowledge, but provide them with jobs as well.

Speakers at the session noted that back-up infrastructure — such as transmission masts and solar power facilities to power the stations and handsets —  must also be in place to serve people living in the most remote regions of the continent.

While it was agreed that mobile phones should not be over-relied on to deliver health solutions, there was a consensus at the session that these gadgets will be the most popular option to deliver E-health in rural Africa into the foreseeable future.

As a result, the participants said, there is a need to make addressing the challenges relating to access a priority at all levels — not just for policymakers.

“Let’s teach our people  how they can develop content for e-health even at grassroots level as well, so that through using [mobile] phones they can share their expertise in fields such as indigenous health knowledge,” Muhammadou Kah, vice-chancellor of the University of the Gambia, told the session.

He said involvement in generating content for e-health solutions should engage people at village level, noting that locally-produced content would be the most relevant in addressing local health needs.


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