A survey of operational research capacity among members of the Bridging the Gaps Alliance

‘Operational research means that key populations get better programmes,’ states Joost van der Meer, Operational Research Consultant. Recently, he implemented a study among the partner organisations of Bridging the Gaps, to assess their capacity to implement operational research as well as monitoring and evaluation (M&E) – two closely linked fields of work. ‘I discovered that, while quantitative information is available, there are enormous information gaps related to human rights, meaningful involvement of key populations, and policy change.’ A short interview with the researcher, who will also compose the operational research plan.

What is the importance of operational research for key populations?

‘Operational research will answer crucial questions about programmes for key populations. Does the programme work? What makes it work? How do changes in the programme and in the environment influence the people that it serves? The results can be directly used for improvements, while they can also give evidence for a successful approach to be rolled out. Moreover, the outcome might encourage potential donors to support Bridging the Gaps.’

What did you find out?

‘I collected data with the help of a questionnaire, which was completed by key members of the Bridging the Gaps Alliance. My aim was to discover the partners’ ideas about operational research and about the role of in-country partners. Besides, I checked the baseline information from the needs assessments. I was impressed by the 72% response, indicating that the local partners have a positive attitude towards operational research. And some have good capacities too. For instance, in the past five years, 58% were involved in research themselves. While most partners were supportive of organisational research, they suggested to make extra resources available for this. It was good to hear that they stood up for their partners in the field. They also insisted that key populations should be involved in research. 

 What did you discover about reaching the ‘hard to reach’?

‘One of the people I interviewed said: ”The expression ‘hard to reach’ is deeply problematic. It is the services that are inaccessible or inappropriate. It is not the people themselves that are hard to reach.” This tells us something about the research angle to take. Bridging the Gaps aims to improve access to services. Someone told me, for instance, that in Pakistan, the programme staff decided to buy a portable CD4 machine, which brings HIV testing and care closer to the people. The machine allows health workers to know when people living with HIV need to start antiretroviral therapy. Now, half the country wants it. So the research hypothesis may be that a portable CD4 machine gets more people from key populations into treatment. But, again, involving the users themselves is paramount when you formulate a theory. Once, I asked a person living with HIV what he liked best about the service where I met him. I expected an answer like ‘I can get my viral load monitored, here’. But the answer was ‘I am treated as a human being, here’. So, always take into account the client’s perspective!’

Another research area is the impact of changing policies on key populations. What are your expectations?

‘To demonstrate the link between policy change and people’s lives and health is quite complex. In Vietnam, a Bridging the Gaps team documents the lives of sex workers after the government decided to close the ‘rehabilitation centers’, in which sex workers and drug users were locked up. So, in Vietnam, there is potential for the issue.’

What are the next steps?

‘We will develop more critical research topics, jointly with key people. Then, we will contact interested donors for funding. Bridging the Gaps’ operational research is a unique opportunity to demonstrate the impact of an exceptional partnership.’

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