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What role can evidence play in divided societies? Learning from South Africa

In March 2019, Majella McCloskey, CES Senior Manager was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

Majella leads CES’s work in Northern Ireland, as well as aspects of the organisation’s work on evidence informed policy making. Her Fellowship will enable her to explore how contested societies have used evidence to reconcile competing policy positions and to bring that learning back to the CES and the Northern Ireland context. Majella’s first visit, which was to South Africa, was undertaken in August and September 2019. Among those she met was Professor Ruth Stewart, Director of the Africa Centre for Evidence. Majella spoke to Ruth about how evidence is being used to tackle significant social and political challenges in South Africa, and four approaches that the Centre is using to improve the use of evidence in decision making.

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Majella McCloskey: In the evidence and policy world in Britain and Ireland, people talk about ‘evidence informed policy making’, but here you talk about ‘evidence informed decision making’. Do you want to tell us why?

Ruth Stewart: I think that there are two reasons why we’ve ended up with this wording. One is just an admission that we don’t really know much about the policy making world. I would certainly be being naïve if I labelled every person who works in government (which is what I think tends to happen) as policy makers. Because I know that there are researchers and a whole range of different people who work within government. We prefer to use ‘decision making’ because we don’t really know enough about policy making to be confident to use that phrase.

The second reason is that we think evidence can be used in all sorts of decisions, whether it’s practitioners or citizens, NGOs or others. I think when we use the word ‘policy making’ we tend to exclude those from the language and that terminology, so we use ‘evidence informed decision making’.

MMcC: Why do you think there’s such an appetite for evidence informed decision making in Africa and particularly in South Africa?

RS: My answer initially is a very personal one. I grew up in Malawi, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and I live in South Africa, which is one of the most unequal countries in the world. I think my experience and the experience largely across the region is that we’re tackling really big issues around poverty and inequality, issues of governance, corruption. They are a great impetus to want to make a change. Personally, as a researcher who knows about evidence and evidence informed decision making, and for many people across the continent, we want to make a difference and we want to use our skills to make a difference. So, I think there’s a really strong drive to want to use evidence informed decision making.

I think there’s some amazing talent and skill, innovation and experience and expertise across the continent and that combination of ability and potential and the drivers of the issues we’re trying to face means the appetite for evidence informed decision making is strong and growing all the time.

Four ways to improve evidence informed decision making

MMcC: What sort of things is the Africa Centre for Evidence trying to do to support the landscape of evidence informed decision making in South Africa?

RS: We use a combination of four different broad approaches and one of them is around evidence synthesis. That’s about collating the evidence base in rigorous and useful ways to make sure that decision makers can access the best available evidence to make better decisions.

The second thing is around supporting evidence communities, so building relationships and building networks because we firmly believe that we can collate the best research evidence using all sorts of methodologies, such as evidence mapping and systematic reviewing. But if we don’t have really good relationships across research and decision-making spheres and all those different areas in between, then actually the difference we can make is limited. So, our second area is building evidence communities.

The third area we’re working in is evidence capacities because we know that there are extraordinary capacities within the country and across the continent as well. But we believe that through sharing our capacities in research production and use and other forms of evidence development and evidence use, we all do a better job.

The last area is something we call the ‘art and science of evidence use’ and really it’s acknowledging that we’re learning all the time. As a broad community that is promoting evidence use in the country, we need to be doing research to see if we are doing a good job. What are the best ways to support evidence use? What can we learn from others elsewhere, including those of you in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland too? How can we see what else is happening around the world and do a better job as a result? So, that’s our fourth area.

MMcC: What excites you about the future of evidence informed decision making in South Africa?

RS: I think it is about the potential to make a difference. I think the innovation and commitment and skills and expertise across the continent and in South Africa in particular are really extraordinary. And we really do face everyday problems. Poverty isn’t an abstract thing we talk about, it’s something we meet every day as we go out of our houses. And there’s a real drive across the country to make a difference in what we’re doing, and I think the potential for our work is really exciting. There’s a really strong appetite in the country and we find that, while it’s not universal at all, there are open doors and there are people who are really keen to work with us. And the demand for the work that we do at ACE certainly outstrips our ability to meet them.

This interview is based on an audio interview recorded in South Africa in September 2019. For more information, visit the following websites:

African Centre for Evidence,

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust