The funding landscape for ‘evidence use’ has changed significantly in the last five years. New players have emerged, and some of the previous stalwarts have reviewed or redirected their approaches. Here’s a roundup of the major changes in the UK, North America and global funding landscape, and two big implications and questions for the sector in 2024.
The UK funding landscape
From where I’m sitting in London, we’ve seen huge shifts in our international development funding landscape in the past few years.
The DfID and FCO merger to form FCDO led to a restructuring of the Research and Evidence Directorate, which had previously funded flagship evidence use work such as BCURE.
As part of the sweeping cuts to UK aid funding since 2021, the £16 million UKAID-funded SEDI project was cancelled, two years into its five-year implementation period. SEDI aimed to build on learning from BCURE to explore agile, politically responsive approaches to strengthening evidence use at the sectoral level in Ghana, Uganda and Pakistan.
The ongoing effects of these cuts to the research and evidence sector, including reputational damage and loss of trusted relationships with key Southern partners, is illustrated by the British Academy in their recent submission to the UK Government’s consultation for its new White Paper on international development.
Since the cuts, the FCDO’s Research and Evidence Directorate has continued supporting other aspects of research systems. And 2024 looks set to be a key year as several major programmes wrap up and a next big research systems strengthening initiative is designed.
The Africa Capacity Building Initiative finished last year and three other projects will finish next year: Strengthening Research Institutions in Africa; Strengthening Africa’s Science Granting Councils Phase II; and the Africa Technology and Innovation Partnership.
Early indications suggest that the next initiative will continue to cover Africa but expand to include India and/or other Southeast Asian countries.
In the meantime, the education team at FCDO has begun to focus more on evidence use. FCDO has partnered with the Gates Foundation, USAID, the World Bank and others to launch a major new international consortium that will focus on evidence use in education policy.
The £30 million What Works Hub for Global Education is led by the Blavatnik School at University of Oxford and brings together more than 40 partners worldwide. The learning coming out of this project will be something to watch in the coming years, as it aims to pick up on lessons from previous programmes like RISE, BCURE and SEDI.. I think we should be seeing some really interesting learning around embedded use of evidence through country-led, politically savvy approaches.
This reflects a growing interest in evidence use in the education sector. This growing interest was recently illustrated by the international convening co-hosted by the Jacobs Foundation and FCDO in October 2023 and a new Evidence for Education network founded in November 2023 with funding from BHP and CEDIL. There’s also a deepening interest in evidence use from a longstanding group of education donors in the Building Evidence for Education Network, as well as in the African Education Research Funders Consortium, which shares some of the same members.
Watch this space!
North America’s funding landscape
In the US, the Transforming Evidence Funders Network has grown over the last couple of years into a vibrant international space for donors interested in evidence informed policy. The network has held two events so far in 2018 and 2022, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in partnership with the William T Grant Foundation and others.
The Hewlett Foundation, a major player in evidence use funding over the past eight years or so, has been reviewing its approach to evidence use. Over the past couple of years this has included a restructure of their evidence team, a strategy refresh, and an evaluation of their five-year evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) strategy.
The evaluation of this work is an interesting read, synthesising lessons from $120 million of projects, largely in east and west Africa, led by organisations including CDD and ACEPA in Ghana. Key learning, which will resonate for many of us who have been working in this sector, are: the need to ensure we ‘join the dots’ between pockets of siloed thinking within the EIPM space; the need to improve our approach to equity in evidence work, including the importance of taking a broad view of evidence rather than promoting one form of evidence alone; and identifying opportunities to ‘deep dive’ into specific sectors (as FCDO learned in the BCURE evaluation and aimed to do in SEDI).
The Hewlett Foundation continues to partner with IDRC and now the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation on a major new programme: LEEPS. This will build on the PEERS partnership that recently concluded. LEEPS has launched two new regional hubs in East and West Africa, headed by ACED in Benin, ACRES in Uganda and AFIDEP in Kenya, with Results for Development as the coordinating partner.
USAID has also become increasingly active in the evidence-informed policy space. Their new Localisation Initiative, in partnership with the Hewlett Foundation and CGD, launched in May this year with the aim to strengthen the role of local research in their evidence production and use programming.
Like the UK’s FCDO, USAID is also turning its attention to evidence use in the education sector. It has just launched a new initiative called Data Ecosystems for Development in Education (DECODE), which will focus on integrating and amplifying locally and regionally produced evidence in global evidence ecosystems and ensuring that evidence is useful and used. This project is in its early inception phases but should be an interesting one to watch.
In addition to the Transforming Evidence Funders Network, there are several other new funder collectives and partnerships that have emerged over the past couple of years.
The Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges is a significant new global player in the sector. Its funders are American and Canadian health research institutes who, as far as I know, have not been active on the topic of evidence use on a global level until now.
The European Union has also started to fund this area, launching a new multi-country project on building capacity for evidence use in 2023.
And the World Bank’s Development Impact (DIME) unit is soon to scale up a trial-and adopt methodology that it’s been using for two decades to strengthen the way data and impact evaluation evidence make their way into policy.
This renewal of interest in evidence use is reflected in other multilaterals too. Earlier this year, the UN General Assembly created a new Scientific Advisory Board. And in the past two years, the OECD has published two comprehensive edited volumes on evidence use—a report in 2020 followed by a book on evidence use in education last year, which includes the results of a survey on evidence use with education policymakers in over 25 countries.
Two big implications and questions
It’s exciting to see the evidence use field grow. The funding landscape has changed so much since I started working in this space in the BCURE programme (VakaYiko). As I watch this flourishing/expansion, two big questions come to mind:
1. How can we be evidence-informed in our evidence-use work?
As the sector expands, there’s more and more learning and experience from different parts of it. But there’s a risk that we reinvent the wheel—something I’ve already seen happening in several different spaces.
I wonder if this is just an inevitable part of the journey from a more ‘niche’ approach to something that is embraced by different sectors and disciplines.
Or is there something we can do better to draw in learning as we go? It was encouraging to see a new funder collective spearheaded by 3ie make a ‘global evidence commitment’ in October, which seems like a step in the right direction.
2. ‘More’ funding doesn’t mean ‘better’ funding.
It’s great to see more and more funders interested in evidence use. But I wonder how we can also turn this into ‘better’ funding.
Literature and experience so far show a strikingly similar set of recommendations and issues emerge again and again. These are explained with a post-Covid lens in this useful set of recommendations for funders from CGD.
So how can we use the collective interest and momentum to find solutions to some of these common funding issues?