Tracey Koehlmoos: Systematic reviews in international development

Tracey KoehlmoosThis week I am in rural Savar, Bangladesh, attending the Dhaka Colloquium on Systematic Reviews in International Development. It is always a pleasure to be in Bangladesh, but it is particularly enjoyable to be with so many of my colleagues from ICDDR,B, collaborative partners from systematic review work at 3ie, and the Campbell Collaboration, but also for us to be joined by so many of the 81 students who attended the DfID funded regional capacity building in systematic review programme of work.

The mini-colloquium capitalises upon the movement for evidence based development which continues to gather momentum and hopes to advance and clarify the important contribution of systematic reviews to an array of development areas including health, education, social welfare, climate change, and agriculture.

The conference has brought together researchers, policy makers, development partners, and programme managers from around the globe. It is sponsored by 3ie, the Campbell Collaboration, ICDDR,B, and BRAC University, and made possible with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.

The plenaries and parallel sessions are a mix of “how to” for various aspects of systematic reviews, presentations of completed projects, and most controversially overviews of cutting-edge methodological aspects of systematic reviews.

For the first time, someone else developed an abstract and gave a presentation that assessed some of my teams’ work—the capacity building for systematic reviews project. Former trainee S. Ghose provided very public feedback and to hear him express his gratitude, his belief in the potential for systematic reviews in development, and the great desire for more training and more infrastructure to be built in Nepal for systematic reviews, was humbling.

Perhaps the most controversial session that I have attended so far was provocatively named “Rapid reviews: opportunity or oxymoron?” 3ie deputy director, Phil Davies presented on “rapid evidence assessment” and their place in the pantheon of evidence synthesis efforts aimed at informing policy making. Serious questions remain about rapid reviews being biased compared to systematic reviews—and how the process would even allow the developers of these reviews to recognize any biases. However, Davies pointed out that “all evidence is probabilistic.”  How do researchers meet the needs of policy makers—especially given the short window of opportunity between the time that information is requested and the time when the decision is going to be made?

There are two days left to the meeting—and I will share if anything exciting happens.

Tracey Koehlmoos is adjunct professor at George Mason University, Washington DC, and adjunct scientist at ICDDR,B.