In January 2020, Sightsavers celebrated its 70th birthday. We’re proud of the reputation the organisation has established over seven decades of working to eliminate avoidable blindness, promote disability rights, and treat and prevent neglected tropical diseases around the world. Day to day, our different teams do the work that most international NGOs do: working with partners to effect change through programmes in low- and middle-income countries, fundraising to support our goals, and monitoring and evaluating our work to ensure that we are operating at the highest possible standard and continually learning from our experience.
But at Sightsavers, one thing that sets us apart from most NGOs is our in-house research capacity. And the three of us who make up the new research uptake and learning team – Anna Ruddock, Anne Roca and Susan D’Souza – are dedicated to making sure the work of the research team makes a real difference in the world.
In 2017 we became an independent research organisation, which means we can apply for government research funding in the same way as an academic institution. Our research team is made up of more than 30 people, based around the world, with skills ranging from epidemiology and economics to GIS mapping and community-based participatory research.
Why are we committed to doing our own research? In short, because it is the best way to ensure that our programmes meet the needs of the people they are designed to serve. Researchers within academic institutions and NGOs are equally motivated by the pursuit of knowledge, but the research itself may serve different purposes and have different incentives. While there is an increasing demand from funders for ‘impact’, research in academia is still judged by its contribution to disciplinary fields and its dissemination through peer-reviewed journals. The immediate goal of research at Sightsavers is to generate evidence that our programme teams can use to improve lives around the world.
We also strive to be a key voice in the conversation on global health research. In a letter published in The Lancet Global Health, we call for more evidence on the prevalence of disability and the effectiveness of interventions to promote greater inclusion, and point to the need to mainstream disability within global research. At the recent International Centre for Evidence in Disability (ICED) conference, which we co-hosted with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), presentations from our researchers demonstrated that Sightsavers is making a significant contribution to this effort.
We also contribute to the scientific knowledge base by publishing our research results in peer-reviewed journals and reports, all available on our research centre, which offers a full library of our research activities, including our evidence gap maps – a useful resource for academics, research institutions and policymakers.
But doing research and sharing findings, no matter how compelling they might be, is not enough to have a real impact on lives. To make sure the work of the research team makes a real difference in the world, Sightsavers created a small team of global advisers dedicated to research uptake and learning (that’s us).
At Sightsavers, we want to find new ways to make sure that disability is given more attention within research. We held a Twitter chat on 20 February to explore the global lack of evidence.See the highlights
In October 2019, we came on board to support the implementation of a new evidence uptake and learning strategy and to take a closer look at how Sightsavers’ research can have an even greater impact. Sightsavers’ research strategy aims to closely integrate research and programmes at every stage – from generating a research question through to ensuring findings are used to inform decisions. These decisions are made by programme teams and other stakeholders, including policymakers and partners promoting social change in the countries where we work. We want to get better at this.
And as a wider organisation, we want to get better at learning from and using different types of evidence from internal and external sources. The demand for evidence is urgent because the needs of our programme participants are immediate and the project timelines set by funders are often short. This means that we need to continuously capture knowledge from many different sources, in different ways. We need to formulate new questions and test new approaches based on what we think we know, revising those approaches as we learn more.