Broadly speaking, “evidence” refers to any body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid. Its exact meaning and implications vary with disciplines (law, philosophy, mathematics, economics, etc.). Recently there is a persisting call upon “evidence” mainstreaming in the decision-making process, not only in the policy sphere but also in all strategic initiatives and routine actions. Evidence is therefore expected to help policymakers and practitioners in navigating through challenging and sometimes adverse decision-making contexts, and in fine help in achieving better results timely, sustainably, and cost-effectively.
The question is what should be considered as evidence in policymaking? Overall, evidence champions used to focus on scientific evidence, including observations and experimental results rigorously collected and interpreted in accordance with the scientific methods. Unfortunately, focusing only on scientific evidence to inform policy and actions narrows the use of evidence in the decision-making process and fail to align with history and governing realities in Africa. Here are some reasons why we should rethink the concept of evidence in policymaking in the African context.
First, some contextual factors prevent from optimal use of scientific evidence in policymaking:
- Knowledge generation and hence evidence production is very weak. Africa produces below 1% of the world’s scientific knowledge. Indeed, Research and especially research and Development (R&D) is very poorly funded, with Africa having the lowest R&D expenditure in the world. In 2019, Africa’s funding of R&D is 0.42% of the continent’s GDP, far below the world average of 1.7%.
- Policymakers and practitioners are not well (if not) connected to scientific communities. In most African countries, these two communities evolve in two parallel spheres. Thousands of research outputs come out of universities and research institutes but are not used. Similarly, thousands of questions and challenges arise in communities and are not translated into research questions and investigated. Consequently, research outputs do not fit the needs of policymakers and practitioners.
- In many cases, policymakers, especially at local government levels, are very poorly equipped and lack technical skills to access and extract evidence from existing resources. Recent rapid diagnosis in 2020 among municipalities in Benin indicates that there is only one computer for all the staff (a minimum of 10 persons) of the Aguégués Municipality.
Second, there are other knowledge generation mechanisms that deliver a kind of “empirical evidence” and which deserve more attention on the debate of evidence-informed policymaking. Indeed, Africa has oral traditions with most of the knowledge generated based on long observations and transmitted through generations through songs, fables, folktales, etc. As a result, there are many beliefs and traditional knowledge which are continuously developed and used by local authorities without being formerly validated by science. These beliefs and traditional knowledge are routinely used to advise kings and increasingly local authorities, for instance, on the best place for a market, on land planning, etc. In addition to beliefs and traditional knowledge, “citizen opinion” is another evidence routinely used by local authorities in policymaking.
This kind of evidence is also rooted in the African tradition and helps makes decisions with legitimacy. Then, beyond the advisors who bring evidence through beliefs and traditional knowledge, local authorities develop different mechanisms to promote inclusiveness and participation of the community in the decision-making process. These mechanisms include open meeting under trees “Arbre à palabre” and more increasingly radio broadcasts with different themes “Grognes” “Coup de Coeur”, “Coup de gueule” wherein citizens are invited to express their opinions on a given subject, to initiate a reform, to denounce or praize an action. A recent study on the landscape of evidence use by local government in Benin indicates that municipalities rely more on citizen opinions to inform decision making.
Considering the abovementioned contextual elements, ACED calls upon an Africanization of the concept of evidence. Evidence should include both research results, evaluation results, data, citizen opinions, beliefs, and traditional knowledge.