Building African Research Capacities for the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases The Creation of EFINTD

Neglected tropical diseases affect over 1 billion people mostly in Africa. As the name suggests, compared to HIV/ AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, these diseases receive relatively little attention. Under the coordination of VolkswagenStiftung, several European foundations, namely Fondation Mérieux, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian and the Nuffield Foundation, met in 2008 to explore possibilities for collaboration around these neglected tropical diseases. All participants at the meeting were working at operational levels in their respective foundation. The meeting was inspiring: “We felt that there is so much talk about collaboration but this was actually a concrete opportunity to do it. We all could have set up our own fellowship program, but doing a common project we have much more impact.”

At the end of their meeting the foundations immediately defined the next steps, and started working on a joint position paper. It was an investment but there was great energy: “I am not sure if we had less work in those days, but I know at the time, we took the time to do it and everybody was very proactive.” Within nine months the European Foundation Initiative for African Research into Neglected Tropical Diseases (EFINTD) issued its first call for proposals, soliciting fellowship applications, having secured executive endorsement from the individual foundations involved: “We were able to convince our executives to put in the money. Everybody had to go to their internal committees. It seemed we had the space to experiment: everybody was interested to see how this collaboration would work. What may have helped is that it was not a big amount of money for any of the partners so everybody played the game.”

The collaborative does more than jointly granting fellowships: Meetings are organised in which scientists from the North and South meet and exchange ideas. Fellows are offered possibilities to develop non-technical skills and knowledge in order to manage research projects, programmes and to influence public health policies. As the name of the collaborative implies, it is about research and capacity building.

There is no formal contract among the foundations that partner in the initiative because they feel it is not needed and seeking a legal arrangement may make working together actually more complicated. As a group of funders they decided to partner with a technical agency that provides administrative support and substantive follow-up to all the fellowships and reports to the group. After the first call, another foundation, Fondazione Cariplo expressed interest to join and came aboard. The foundation demonstrated willingness to fit into the existing format: “He said ‘ok these are the rules so we work with those’.” At the same time, in addition to financial resources, they also contributed their experiences which helped improve certain work processes.

An issue that was extensively discussed was the regional spread in connection with the competitive quality criteria for awarding fellowships. Since the quality in education and research is not equally spread among scientists from English, French and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, Francophone and Lusophone countries were underrepresented among the fellowships granted on a competitive basis. So the Portuguese partner decided to also fund other fellowships targeting capacity-building at other levels, particularly at PhD level. This additional step is done completely within the context of the joint initiative. The experience showed that new partners can join the group but what if the people in the group change: “We know each other and meeting each other a few times a year is enough but if you are new it is different”. And when the person representing the leader and champion leaves you also have to make choices, “these are difficult decisions and it is not always easy to talk about them, but we have a solid basis and the experience has proved we work together well in practice.”

After three calls all involved are still very much motivated and energized. They are looking to involve new partners, and are networking and planning the future. Contacts with public and private funders are expected to bring in more resources into the initiative. The future will tell. “We may not all have the same time horizon, but EFINTD shows that collaboration in Europe works.”

For more information about the initiative: http://www.ntd-africa.net.

An article written by the group about the experience was featured in a peer-reviewed, open access journal on neglected diseases: http://www.plosntds.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0002019