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The Afya Consortium: a new approach to researching public health threats in populations affected by crises

Globally, there are millions of people affected and displaced by armed conflicts, natural disasters and food insecurity. These crises result in excess deaths and mental health problems.
Participants at the Afya Consortium meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Public health information can play a key role in the design and implementation of humanitarian responses to these crises, although non-pharmaceutical interventions, including hygiene behaviour change, are historically underfunded.

Epidemics pose a particular threat in crisis settings, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic still largely unclear in itself, as well as its knock-on affect on other areas, such as sexual and reproductive health.

Against the above challenges, as well as others – a dearth of methodological expertise, shrinking humanitarian and researcher access to affected populations, and a post-colonial architecture that disempowers local actors – the Afya Consortium aims to identify crucial opportunities for methodological innovation in monitoring threats to public health, as well as working with communities to strengthen their capacity in doing so.

We formed the Afya Consortium to work together collaboratively and equitably to conduct this research. It is a multi-disciplinary partnership, between LSHTM in the UK; the Université Catholique de Bukavu in DRC, SIMAD University in Somalia, the Bridge Network Organisation in South Sudan, and the Youth Peer Education Network (Y-Peer) in Sudan. We are committed to equitable partnerships principles and will adopt a decolonial approach to research and humanitarian action, through active sharing of power and decision-making. 

To kick off the CDC-funded project, the Afya Consortium held an all-partner face-to-face meeting in Nairobi in July, which was attended by ten colleagues from LSHTM, and three colleagues from each of the partner organisations.

It was important for all the partners to bring the project’s coproduction and decolonising principles to the meeting and its outcomes. This involved discussions on non-hierarchal ways of working and project governance, which we conducted as a group, sitting on the floor.

We also had time to get to know each other, as well as learning sessions on decolonising and coproduction principles as applied to research activities, planning for research outputs, and discussions on learning and development activities. Colleagues from the four partner organisations worked collaboratively to determine their research area priorities across the multiple themes of the research programme, with high priority being given to research on community surveillance and historical outbreak data analysis.

Aljaile Ahmed, Quantitative Research Manager from the Y-PEER Network in Sudan said:

I learnt a lot from interacting with the LSHTM team and with the representatives of the four countries… We were able to achieve a lot in a short time, we came up with cross-country research plans, mechanisms for managing the Consortium and joint learning programmes. We could have done this virtually, but it would have taken so long. The meeting was also an opportunity to get to know each other and find common interests as organisations and individuals which will make working together fun and productive.” 

Overall, the meeting was a success with all the participants expressing that they found the opportunity to meet face-to-face beneficial. This meeting also allowed the four partners to work together to prioritise which research areas they, as a consortium, wanted to focus on, as well as identify synergies between countries planning to focus on the same research area.

Israa Zain Alabdein, Qualitative Research Manager from the Y-PEER Network in Sudan said:

My appreciation goes to our partners at LSHTM for providing us the opportunity to meet physically in Nairobi and engage together in a meaningful and productive way, bringing different perspectives, experiences and ideas to build a solid and impactful roadmap and plans for the CDC project, and launching the consortium that I am personally proud to be part of; the Afya Consortium!

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