Strengthening Research System Development for Health in West Africa

West Africa needs support in strengthening research systems for health at national as much as at regional levels. The challenges to overcome are many, namely that there are weak or absent national research management structures; limited national policy and strategic plans for research for health; a lack of motivation and skills among researchers; insufficient equipment and material in research institutions; accessibility problems to internet and bibliographies; low governmental financial support; low quality and quantity of publications; and weak utilisation of research results by decision makers[1],[2],[3].

The West African Health Organization (WAHO) has developed a programme for research for health promotion within the WAHO strategic plan of 2009 – 2013. This programme aims to facilitate research for health in all Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries by strengthening governance structures, improving capacities of research institutions and researchers, financing research for health and enhancing the dissemination and utilisation of research results.

Following the launch of the WAHO strategic plan, COHRED and WAHO with support from the International Development Research Centre – Canada (IDRC) have engaged in a 4 year project (2011-2014) to strengthen the research for health system in 4 West African countries: Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone. The project fosters a regional approach for strengthening research systems for health, with the aim of bringing countries together for a common goal, as well as maximising impact by making the most of limited resources. Since the start of this programme, other ECOWAS countries have expressed their wish to be supported for strengthening their own governance system of research and innovation.

Project achievements to date

Governance and Management of Research

  • GUINEA BISSAU has finalised its first national research for health priority setting effort and drafted the first national research for health agenda. Currently the agenda has been submitted to the Minister of Health for final approval and adoption.
  • LIBERIA has created a research unit within the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, validated a list of research for health priorities to be integrated into a national research for health agenda, and is currently implementing a roadmap for the development of a national research for health policy that will provide the country with a policy framework and with guidelines for the conduct of research.
  • SIERRA LEONE has finalised the national research for health policy and strategic plan, which are to be formally launched before the end of 2013.
  • MALI – In September 2011 the first national workshop was convened to define the role and composition of the national research for health coordinating committee, to be established with the support of the project. The creation of the committee and formal approval of the action plan financial allocations are pending due to the restructuring of the country leadership, following the 2012 political unrest.

Governance, Priorities and Policies in National Research for Health Systems in West Africa

This report provides further information on the status of research systems for health in the four countries – Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone – at the start of this project. In particular, the governance and management structures, research for health policies and research for health priorities are reviewed.


Research Ethics Review

One of the priority areas of work within the current project, and common to the four countries, is the strengthening of national research ethics review processes.

  • A first training workshop was organised in LIBERIA in July 2012, and attended by at least one participant of each of the other countries involved in the project.
  • Emulating Liberia’s effort, SIERRA LEONE plans to hold a national ethics workshop in 2013 with the aim to expand the training to ethics committee members.
  • GUINEA BISSAU intends to review the composition of the national ethics review committee and strengthen national capacity in research ethics review.

 Regional Collaboration and Networking

  • In April 2012 countries were invited, with the financial support of WAHO, to participate in Forum 2012, and in the satellite workshop on ‘Research for Health System Strengthening’, both events were hosted in Cape Town and organised by COHRED.
  • In November 2012 countries were supported by WAHO to participate in a knowledge sharing week in Tanzania, with the aim to explore through the Tanzania experience the applicability and practical features of strategies for strengthening research governance systems.
  • With the desire to implement other research for health strengthening activities in the region, and also to scale-up this project’s achievements, WAHO and COHRED are working together to find other avenues of support. In this light we organising a satellite meeting to the EDTCP forum in Dakar on “Sustainable Investment in Research for Health”.

 Research for health information management systems in the sub-region

WAHO initiated in 2012 an effort to improve the research information management system in the sub-region. An initial assessment indicated that none of the four countries involved in this project benefited from a centralised research information management system, neither of an appropriate support for providing comprehensive and systematic information regarding research. To tackle these deficiencies, we developed the West Africa HRWeb platform, a sub-regional research information management system mirroring Health Research Web and embedded in WAHO’s website.

In parallel to supporting national training workshops, the project team is currently improving the user friendliness of the platform and building additional indicators that will allow better monitoring the research system development and performance at national and regional levels. To date,  over a hundred and thirty people throughout the ECOWAS region have been trained as focal points in managing data on the platform routinely.


[1] The state of research for health environment in the ministries of health of the Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS). Sombié et al. Health Research Policy and Systems, 11 September 2013, 11:35.

[2] West African science too reliant on foreign cooperation. Esther Tola., 27 August 2013.

[3] Accelerating Health Research for Africa’s Development. An assessment of the Effectiveness of National Policies in Eastern and Southern Africa. J. Ouma-Mugabe. Policy Brief. University of Pretoria, Graduate School of Technology Management, July 2013.