Africa: Tracking Killers and Healers - a Research and Reporting Collaboration

[Source: AllAfrica, by Tami Hultman, October 8, 2012]

Over the past several weeks, AllAfrica's crack investigative team has documented scientists acting strangely. At summits, symposia and scholarly consultations – and in exclusive interviews – researchers have abandoned caveats and qualifications to make bold assertions and appeals for action.

On three topics – maternal mortality, malaria and hunger – researchers are brandishing their results and taking stands. In each sector, they're saying that this is a magic moment, and they are demanding investments in innovative interventions they say will save lives, reduce poverty and promote economic development. We decided to probe the hidden stories behind this odd behavior.

Dr. Stephen Spratt of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, is the lead author of an Action Against Hunger report on under-nutrition. Just before the report's launch at the British Parliament this month, I put it to him that financial analysts normally ring their pronouncements with qualifications and caveats. Why wasn't he? His answer: the data has driven him to become a sort of nutrition evangelist. Malaria experts and specialists on women's health respond similarly.

Okay, okay, AllAfrica doesn't have a crack investigative team. We just try to do what good media professionals have always done – whether it's called investigative journalism, computer-assisted reporting, big-picture journalism or data journalism. Most of the time, the data, as it emerges, is not really hidden; it's just under-noticed and under-reported.

Contemplate this: An estimated 36 percent of Kenya's children are undernourished to the point of "stunting" – which will forever limit their physical and intellectual development and cost the country an estimated 128 billion Kenya shillings (U.S. $1.5 billion and GBP £900 million) annually – and several African countries have higher rates. Nigeria is thought to have the world's highest rate of malaria, accounting for some 23 percent of global cases. But many people depend on informal markets for medication, and most of what they dispense for malaria is ineffective. A sub-Saharan African woman has a shocking one in 39 chance of dying from childbirth, and most of these deaths are preventable. A Ugandan doctor has come up with a surprising way to get her patients to life-saving clinics. Why aren't these big stories?

Social databases are often unreliable, and tracking down data and interpreting it takes effort. It's difficult for journalists to find the time. That's why we're so pleased with a new project, beginning today, that will help us tell those stories. Stick with us as we roll out the multimedia elements, and you'll see this explanation several times:

AllAfrica and the Institute of Development Studies in the UK are collaborating on a research-driven reporting series that looks at how evidence-based innovations can save lives, transform communities and promote equitable economic development in Africa.

What it means is that we've had help and assistance and support from IDS to trawl the evidence, identify experts and connect with the African scientists and practitioners who are using new knowledge to craft effective programs. And it all comes with deference to AllAfrica's professional principles of independence and without editorial interference, as has support for AllAfrica's development reporting from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Regional Initiative in Science and Education.

There may be an emerging consensus that the global community has a common interest in addressing extreme poverty and growing agreement on outlines of what should be done. But the challenges remain complex, and implementation is hard. If the "what" is becoming better understood, there are still sharp disagreements on the "how." As we post stories and related content about tackling malaria in Nigeria, getting pregnant women to clinics in Uganda and feeding babies in Kenya, we'll solicit your ideas and your scrutiny. Help us carry the debate forward.