Muza Gondwe, TropIKA Reviews & Malawi Medical Journal
Whether you are doing public engagement in Colombia, Ghana or Sri Lanka the methods and challenges are similar. This second session on community engagement highlighted three different contexts of public engagement.
Kwaku Poku Asante, a Wellcome Trust International Engagement recipient, discussed Ghana’s Kintampo Health Research Centre’s (KHRC) communication strategy which was developed based on gaps they identified in a study in 2007. The activities in their communication strategy will create awareness about KHRC, inform communities about KHRC research agenda, strengthen the communications unit, and share their lessons learnt. When Kwaku said during his presentation “get the media before they get you” he alluding to providing media with factual information before they construct misleading stories from unreliable sources. He also mentioned that KHRC uses the media as a tool to dispel rumours associated with KHRC research and intervention programs.
Paulina Tindana, Mclaughlin – Rotman Centre and Navrongo Health Research Centre, was unable to attend the conference but her presentation on ethical, social, and cultural issues of community engagement was ably given by Kwaku. She recommended start ing community engagement early, knowing the community you are working in, establishing relationships, and very importantly, feeding back to the community.
Community meetings are valuable opportunities to connect with people, but in some instances, such as in Ghana, at the durbars held by KHRC, a majority of the participants are men. This the delegates attributed to meetings being called by traditional leaders that invite household decision makers who are mostly men. Multiple mechanisms should be used to reach target groups e.g. women can be reached in other arenas such as womens clubs or church groups. However, in a majority of low income countries, the patriarchal nature of society, deems men as heads of households and thus the importance of their approval is vital for studies that will involve women and children.
Lisbeth Fog presented a research study in Colombia that developed a communication strategy that is being implemented by the Columbian Ministry of Health with the assistance of the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology, Colciencias. The study looked at three critical questions surrounding research findings: Who knows about them? Who cares? Who uses the information? The study explored three stakeholders – knowledge produces e.g researchers, intermediaries e.g journalist, and audiences. The results of the study have led to the establishment of a website and provision of training for researchers, amongst other activities.
Even the most obscure of research such as twin studies can engage the community. Sisira Siribaddana’s Sri Lankan Twin Registry capitalized on the change in the A level school curriculum to engage students in conducting research projects on twins.
An interesting question was raised by one of the delegates, “Are there research agendas which are community driven?” Simply put no. However, the Africa Centre has in the course of its activities picked up research ideas. An example was given of a schistosomiasis study that was initiated from reports during engagement activities of children peeing blood.
The burning question that still remains unanswered is evaluating the impact of community engagement. Examples where given by PANOS where they examine case studies where media debates have influenced policy. It was also suggested analyzing enrollment figures and asking during enrollment where people heard of the study. The impact of engagement certainly remains a very topical issue for science communicators as the development of parameters to assess this, can certainly provide evidence that will support communicators promotion and improvement of public engagement.