When the first NIHR Resource Guide on Community Engagement and Involvement (CEI) was published in 2019, the world was as yet untransformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it is even clearer that global health goals are unachievable without strong relationships of trust between researchers, practitioners and the communities with whom they work. COVID-19 has also brought to the fore the importance of bringing diverse forms of knowledge to bear on complex public/global health challenges. In addition, the increased calls to build genuine equitable partnerships in global health research have underscored the fact that meaningful community engagement and involvement is not only an ethical imperative of ‘building forward differently’, but also a means through which global health researchers can be more accountable to those whose lives they seek to improve.

Meaningful engagement

The word ‘meaningful’, when applied to CEI, reflects a range of approaches that aim to bring direct benefits to communities: to influence or hold to account public health decision-makers, to get access to improved health services and/or resources, to build capacity for direct involvement in research, and to address social drivers of ill-health. The terms ‘community engagement’, and relatedly ‘community participation’, are not new, and have often been used in the past to signal the beginning stage of a process when ‘community buy-in’ is required to move forward, or the end stage of a research process when ‘expert’ knowledge is conveyed to the public. For NIHR’s Global Health Research Portfolio, CEI is both a mandate and a core value. The expectation is that research proposals for funding will demonstrate that CEI is not a marginalized component of an overarching research process, but instead a central component of how the research itself was conceived and delivered. 

With that in mind, this learning resource offers a brief set of reflections to help guide decision-making within the context of collaborative research approaches. This text reflects a series of conversations between experienced CEI practitioners over this past year – in the first instance, through participation in the NIHR CEI Expert Advisory Committee and through consultation with NIHR staff and award holders, and later with the co-facilitators of the first learning event hosted by the NIHR and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on 29 January, 2021: Walter Flores of CEGSSErica Nelson, IDS; Alex Shankland, IDS; Mieke Snijder, IDS; and Tom Barker, IDS. In broad brushstrokes, we discuss CEI in designimplementation and adaptationgovernance and accountability and lastly, respect for people’s dignity as a core CEI commitment.

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