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Over the last decade our Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme has supported more than 100 humanitarian health research studies. As we approach the programme’s ten-year anniversary, we are launching a collection of research impact case studies. These case studies showcase the successes and learnings of very different projects.  

Case studies: understanding impact and how it happens

Recognising the need to fully understand and demonstrate the use and application of R2HC-funded research by policymakers and practitioners, since 2019 impact case studies have been conducted as a key measurement tool to support our own learning, and to demonstrate accountability to our donors and the communities we serve.   

Case study research is a commonly used evaluative approach to explore the policy and programming impacts of research. Carol H. Weiss, an evaluation scholar instrumental to developing the ‘theory of change’ approach, noted that case studies help illustrate “the subtle and diverse ways in which knowledge gleaned from research can seep into the ideas of policymakers over time.”  

Case studies aim to evidence outcomes and impacts (not only outputs) and the pathways to achieving them. To ensure our evaluation resources were used effectively, we selected studies where programme records showed there might be uptake worth following up, and the research team would be likely to engage. Case studies couldn’t be too burdensome or costly, and the methodology had to be consistently applied every year. A modified version of Contribution Analysis was identified to meet our needs. We established three core principles upfront: 

  • Case studies are conducted independently of routine grantee management.  
  • Impact is triangulated and validated, using multiple data sources.  
  • Case study methodology is based on evaluation best practices. 

What do the case studies illustrate?

Recognising just how long and hard the pathway is for driving change through research, I am pleased to see how much research uptake the process has uncovered. True, often the impact was at the level of influencing stakeholder knowledge and understanding on a particular topic, or providing critical inputs to a larger change process – this is to be expected and reflects the reality of how policy and practice change takes place. Some research studies, most commonly our ‘responsive research, achieved impact in just one setting or for one humanitarian partner. This range of case studies provides insight into how changes happened, and the depth and significance of those changes. For example, a study led by McMasters University undertook substantive engagement with Ebola survivors, that resulted in an ethics committee in Sierra Leone taking steps to include community representatives in ethical review processes – a significant change. 

Most commonly, the case studies describe instrumental changes at a high level, with research informing new or updated humanitarian practice guidelines such as the Sphere Standards. While this is obviously positive, it raises questions about the implementation of policies and standards in practice. How does the humanitarian sector ensure that new evidence travels the ‘last mile’ to benefit people affected by crisis?  

Many case studies, though, document tangible impacts within specific settings and through influencing specific humanitarian stakeholders. Our analysis suggests that some strategies and enablers are common factors of success. For example, the study teams’ positioning with intended research users (such as practitioners); and the approaches used to communicate research to humanitarian audiences (such as working groups, clusters, and governments).  

Pathways to change

A good example is the REFLECT study, led by Makerere University in partnership with the Ugandan Ministry of Health and local partners. The range of instrumental impacts that the partnership delivered in Uganda suggests that contextual knowledge and positioning can play a role in delivering change through research, particularly during a crisis response where time is of the essence. Somewhat differently, two studies testing the development of MHPSS interventions led by the World Health Organisation’s Department on Mental Health, have contributed to a much broader, diverse range of impact, utilising high-level influence. We’ll be unpacking more of the lessons learned later on in our campaign to highlight the case studies. 

For humanitarian stakeholders to understand and apply evidence, research teams must engage and communicate with them. Presentations, training workshops, blogging and so on, aim to bring about research uptake among policymakers, practitioners, and community members. The case studies therefore document these, as well as contextual factors that helped to enable impact. How, and when to communicate research are common questions for researchers, but practical advice remains quite limited. Through these case studies we have tried to capture detail on this, alongside the enablers, which are useful particularly for research institutions and funders. For example, a case study on menstrual hygiene management research demonstrates the importance of early engagement of humanitarian stakeholders, and developing practitioner-informed outputs, such as toolkits, to facilitate operational application and help secure buy-in. 

Developing the case studies

 The production of research impact case studies feels to me more like an art than a science. The headline learning is that the resource and time required for the development of case studies can be significant – particularly the outreach to humanitarian stakeholders who frequently change post or are deployed to other responses. I’m also aware that as soon as we publish these case studies, they will already be out of date – they only capture impact which took place at one point in time. The impact of research happens over many years as learning diffuses into policy and is translated and integrated into practice in different contexts. We continue to invest in monitoring and evaluation approaches that will go beyond the close of our grants.  

We’re extremely thankful to our former grantees, their partners, our donors, and the external stakeholders who have provided evidence and insights to help us understand the impact of the research we have funded on humanitarian policy, practice and understanding.  

We will be hosting an event in September to discuss these important issues further. To hear more about this event, sign up to our R2HC newsletter.  

For questions about the case studies or the event please email r2hc@elrha.org  

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