The ‘Modeling and Measuring Community Engagement in Health Emergencies Convening’ was held on the 25th and 26th April 2017 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The convening arose out of the Data Modeling Behaviour Change in Health Emergencies project, also funded by Gates (see the Mesh article on this project here). Research scientists, development practitioners, health professionals and policy makers were brought together and this report summarises the discussion and key findings of the session.

The convening focused on how to better define, measure, model and operationalise community engagement and behaviour change communications in future emergency health response scenarios. The aim was for the attendees to collectively move past reflection on past emergencies, and to discuss practical, actionable steps to prevent past problems recurring.

3 critical questions were posed:

  • What concrete actions and plans do we need in place when the next health emergency occurs?

  • How do we build the evidence base?

  • How can the evidence we build inform policy?

Attendees discussed how the assumption that empirical measurement of the impacts of social interventions during outbreaks would be expensive and difficult means the field is lacking a sorely needed evidence base, which makes the formation of, and justification for, social interventions in the future difficult.

From the proceedings, a number of key points arose:

  • WHO, UNICEF, and other international agencies are already making progress to address gaps in social sciences and community engagement capacity as part of their global health preparedness efforts

    • This includes the Social Science Interventions for Managing Infectious Disease consultation, run by the WHO, and UNICEF C4D’s Social Science in Action platform, both under development at the time of the convening.

  • Stakeholders must aim for greater consensus and clarity on the definition and components of community engagement within a health emergency

    • To different stakeholders, the term ‘community engagement’ means different things, while some use multiple terms to mean the same thing, such as ‘social mobilisation’, ‘behaviour change communication’ etc. Attendees of the convening attempted to define key elements of community engagement within a health emergency context. However this further highlighted the diversity of experience and perceptions of engagement.

    • While this lack of consensus continues, it makes it difficult measure and advocate for, or how to position community engagement in an operational response.

    • Understanding the context in which community engagement activities take place is vital, as different interventions will produce different results in different communities and contexts. Participants discussed how best to access secondary sources of information about these contexts, for example how to access local specialists.

    • While engagement during health emergencies is vital, and analysis of the West African Ebola epidemic provides impetus for improving engagement during outbreaks, it is also vital that engagement is seen as a necessary aspect of all health interventions, especially within the context of international development.

  • There is scope to further the field of epidemiological modelling and to build the social evidence base through deeper collaboration between the modelling professionals and social science practitioners.

  • It should be possible to develop standard indicators for measuring behavioural outcomes and operational performance of community engagement interventions within health emergency responses - and there is a need for this.

    • Community engagement efforts should always be measured during health emergencies wherever possible, although this has often not been done, for a number of reasons. One of these is the lack of standardisation - different agencies may measure outputs in entirely different ways, while other agencies may not have the capacity to develop their own measurement standards.

    • Attendees agreed that it would be possible to develop standards and indicators for everyone working in engagement to use.

Actions for consideration

The convening produced a number of actions to be taken forward by attendees. These included:

  • Enhancing practical collaboration and advocacy by helping to develop a community of practice in community engagement.

  • Create a blueprint for improving measurement and standards of practice. The UNICEF C4D Minimum Standards and Indicators for Community Engagement project came out of this convening. Read more about that here.

  • Establish a mechanism to support increased publication of research on community engagement.

Read the full report on the convening here (PDF).

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