The Health Research Capacity Strengthening Initiative (HRCSI) was a five-year (2008-2013) programme to strengthen health research capacity in Malawi; it provided a range of competitive grants for professional development, internships, undergraduates, Masters and PhDs, and for institutional strengthening. The purpose of this evaluation is to document the performance and impact of HRCSI, and to note successes, challenges and lessons learnt for future capacity-strengthening activities for health research in Malawi.
The evaluation was informed by published evidence and the experience of the evaluation team. Information was obtained from face-to-face, telephone or Skype interviews, supplemented by reports and databases. Interview guides were based on published information about methods for evaluating research-capacity strengthening at individual, institutional, national, and international levels.
The start-up phase of HRCSI had been fraught with difficulties, primarily due to over-ambitious assumptions about existing capacity in Malawi for grant-making. HRCSI was reorganized in 2010-11 with extra support and accountability introduced for financial and project management. A key lesson is that sufficient time should have been set aside to establish roles, responsibilities and relationships between partners and for setting up systems.
The National Health Research Agenda (2012-2016) was widely regarded as one of the foremost achievements of the HRCSI project, seeking to harmonize health research priorities and provide evidence which aligns with Malawi’s priority needs for policy and decision making.
The overwhelming view was that HRCSI produced a step change in the number of high-calibre scientists in Malawi and in fostering research interest among young Malawians. It supported around 50 MSc and PhD students and over 400 undergraduate health-related projects, ranging from basic science to biomedical and social science. Short-term grants raised awareness and provided research exposure, longer-term grants strengthened research capacity. Researchers were generally happy with the research ethics committees, though there were some perceptions of a lack of impartiality. Institutional levies on research grants were a significant disincentive for some researchers. The whole process was seen as non-corrupt but suffered from submission difficulties, poor communication about application outcomes, and long delays were reported in receiving the funding. HRCSI undoubtedly contributed to enhancing mechanisms in Malawi for managing research processes and funding, and has developed supporting guidelines and tools for the various stage of the grant awarding process.
HRCSI supported research dissemination through national and institutional meetings and academic media, and by sponsoring attendance at conferences. Findings from several HRCSI-sponsored projects have been published and around half of all projects were presented at conferences. HRCSI also contributed to an initiative designed to bring together policy makers, subject experts and researchers for the purpose of catalyzing research uptake.
HRCSI funding ceased on 31 October 2013, followed by a one-year ‘consolidation’ phase. There was widespread recognition that it had significantly increased research capacity in Malawi and was beginning to develop a track record for health research grant-making. There was overwhelming support for it to continue as a national research management centre and with a long-term vision of it as a national hub for grant management across all sectors. There was general agreement that while much had been achieved in terms of strengthening the systems, processes and leadership within the National Commission for Science and Technology and creating linkages with the Ministry of Education, further strengthening would be needed for HRCSI to be effectively integrated and sustained in the long term.
Nyirenda, L.; Kwalamasa, K.; Bates, I.; Cole, D.C.; Fazal, N. HRCSI Programme Evaluation. HRCSI, Lilongwe, Malawi (2013) 67 pp.