It’s raining applicants! Reflecting on the flood of doctoral and post-doctoral social scientists seeking to study health systems in sub-Saharan Africa from sub-Saharan Africa

In just over two weeks, 169 candidates from 25 sub-Saharan African countries responded to our offer of doctoral scholarships and post-doctoral fellowships anchored by the South African Research Chairs we hold in Health Systems Governance, Complexity and Social Change at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Public Health. Apart from those from South Africa, there were applicants from Benin to Zimbabwe, reflecting a massive demand for doctoral and post-doctoral training in the region.

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Both male and female candidates came from a range of work locations. Several were embedded within government services, while others supported projects funded by a range of international NGOs and donors. While many were primarily educated in their own countries, quite a few had master’s degrees from South African, other African, and European universities. Several also participated in online training opportunities through Coursera, as well as short courses such as Emerging Voices for Health (linked to Health Systems Global). Together they represent a wealth of young practitioners engaged with improving public health in sub-Saharan Africa.

We were heartened to find that the majority of applicants were focused on important public health and health systems challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa. Of those shortlisted, several focused on decentralization and the implementation of free services in Kenya and Sierra Leone; the management and leadership of hospitals in Uganda; and community accountability in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. Candidates also proposed researching dimensions of UHC in Ghana and Nigeria; and a range of research proposals focused on human resources for health, whether dual practice in Nigeria, professional development in Ghana, the sustainability of the Health Extension Programme in Ethiopia, and the implementation of community-based platforms in South Africa, Ghana and elsewhere.

Added to this mix were individuals undertaking lifecourse analysis to detail the social and health systems determinants of maternal deaths in South Africa; an ethnography of anti-microbial resistance in Uganda; and an anthropological exploration of medical tourism in Malawi. The particular experiences of marginalized groups, whether migrants or refugees in South Africa; ageing HIV positive people in Ethiopia; unwed mothers in Tunisia; or disabled individuals in Zimbabwe were examined through disability, feminist and intersectionality studies. The perspectives of those on the periphery were seen as essential to understanding the dynamics involved in changing patient-centered care in Burkina Faso and Rwanda and regulatory reach in Uganda.


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The purpose of the awards are to advance career development in health policy and systems research with a social science orientation and to build this field in South Africa and other parts of the region. The political economy of global health valorizes premier research enterprises and elite principal investigators, mostly from the global north. We seek specifically to support research on issues that emerge from country realities and which contribute to the development of institutional capacity to do so.

This requires building stronger institutional capacity at African research universities to train and supervise students who are demanding doctoral and post-doctoral opportunities within their geographic and financial reach. This will entail a stronger funding base; an enabling university environment; and revised models of training where clusters of students work collaboratively on similar themes, often embedded in their country contexts and health system work locations and in partnership with different university programmes and stakeholder organizations invested in strengthening health systems.

If one wants to go fast, one walks alone; but if we at UWC want to go far in changing how health systems research is done and has impact, this isn’t done alone. We seek to build a community of social scientists engaged with changing health systems in sub-Saharan Africa, giving voice and visibility to those most marginalized in health systems and in research endeavors. In this regard the work of the SARChI research chairs links integrally with other institutional initiatives focused on health policy and systems research involving ourselves and other partners in the region, such as the Collaboration for Health System Analysis and Innovation with the University of Cape Town and the wider Collaboration for Health Policy and Systems Analysis in Africa network. Will you join us?


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Asha George

SARChI Chair: Health Systems, Complexity and Social Change

School of Public Health, UWC


Helene Schneider

SARChI Chair: Health Systems Governance

School of Public Health, UWC


Shun Govender

Project Manager

School of Public Health, UWC

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