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As major funders of systematic reviews, the UK Department for International Development and 3ie had several insights to share at the Dhaka Colloquium of Systematic Reviews in International Development.

Overall DFID considers its systematic reviews programme to be a success and a valuable addition to its toolbox for evidence based policymaking. Raymond Kennedy, Systematic Review Lead at DFID said that as an evidence product, systematic reviews offer great value for money. “They offer a lot of synthesis for the money invested,” he said.

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As major funders of systematic reviews, the UK Department for International Development and 3ie had several insights to share at the Dhaka Colloquium of Systematic Reviews in International Development.

Overall DFID considers its systematic reviews programme to be a success and a valuable addition to its toolbox for evidence based policymaking. Raymond Kennedy, Systematic Review Lead at DFID said that as an evidence product, systematic reviews offer great value for money. “They offer a lot of synthesis for the money invested,” he said.

Although systematic reviews account for just 0.5 per cent of the content on DFID’s website they contribute to 7.3 per cent of total downloads – a sign that there is demand for such synthesized evidence. At the colloquium, Kennedy highlighted some of the lessons learned by the UK development agency in funding systematic reviews.

  • Systematic reviews take time. DFID had initially estimated 6 months but a rigorous systematic review can take 12-18 months.
  • It is important to get the question right. Unclear systematic review questions can waste a lot of time. Effectiveness questions can also sometimes be difficult to answer. Ideally, one needs to map out the causal chain of the intervention - from inputs to outcomes. If there are too many links in the causal chain then the question at hand may be a problematic one.
  •  There is a need for more focus on getting findings of systematic reviews into use. DFID believes that organizing events is one way of getting more engagement with the findings of systematic reviews. Commissioners of systematic reviews should also ask authors to include communication and dissemination plans as part of their proposal. The inclusion of a concise executive summary and the production of policy briefs can help with systematic reviews becoming more accessible and usable to policymakers. Kennedy added a note of caution to say that some of the DFID funded systematic review teams had gone a step further by getting into advocacy.
  • There is a need to make them accessible. Tied in with the idea of using more of the findings of systematic reviews is the issue of accessibility. Access in this case implies knowing where to go to find a systematic review. It is more difficult accessing systematic reviews in international development compared to systematic reviews in health and medicine. To this end, DFID and 3ie have set up a database for systematic reviews which is a big step in achieving improved access.
  • The production of high quality systematic reviews is a challenge. DFID had cases where the commissioned reviews were found to be not of high quality. But UK’s development agency took a firm stand and decided not to compromise on quality and to discontinue these studies. The research was however preserved as literature review.

The 3ie experience

3ie’s systematic review programme began in 2008 and is currently funding 32 systematic reviews. Dr. Howard White, Executive Director of 3ie said that systematic reviews had a structured format and were often difficult to read. For systematic reviews to become more accessible and reader friendly, it was important to include a narrative element.

“It is important to conduct theory based systematic reviews and package them nicely. The intervention needs to also be defined in terms of implementation, beneficiary knowledge and participation, outputs produced and intermediate as well as final outcomes. It is also equally important to have some stakeholder engagement for identifying a relevant question and for sounding out emerging findings,” he said.

3ie has implemented a host of measures to increase the usability of systematic reviews for policymakers. Authors are encouraged to produce 1 page, 3 page and 20 page easy to read summaries of systematic reviews that touch upon implications for policy. Review authors are also expected to submit a Policy Influence Plan which identifies what changes in discourse or policy they hope to achieve and which key policy stakeholders or champions they are targeting for this purpose

Published on: 18 December 2012

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