In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in strengthening the research capability of institutions in developing countries, particularly those of Africa. This trend took steam in the mid-1990s with the establishment of the Council on Health Research for Development COHRED) and the Global Forum for Health Research (GFHR). The starting point is to acknowledge that, due to severe resource constraints, Africa has continued to lag behind in scientific research to contribute meaningfully to social and economic development (1-3). The launching of the New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) provides a challenge to African scientists to increase their productivity and relevance to needs of local health systems (4). The imperatives on the ground are to build North-South partnerships often with colleagues working at G8 research institutions that have scientific and financial resources. Models for such cooperation are sporadic and not always well-detailed for those wanting to engage in such North-South collaboration (5). Besides, such collaboration is largely driven by the northern partner in arrangements described as semi-colonial where substantive decisions are made by the developed-country partner, while implementation of prescribed protocols is done by the southern partner (6).
After more than 10 years of the landmark Karolinska Nobel Conference on Health Research for Development and the annual conferences of GFHR, there are few tangible examples to show a reduction in the so-called 90/10 gap in distribution of research resources (7). The International Conference on Health Research for Development, co-sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), the COHRED, the World Bank, and the GFHR in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2000, provided the international scientific community a platform to chart a common strategy for health research. However, three years down the road progress remains elusive in most situations. Particularly, North-South and South-South cooperation continue to suffer from failure to agree on values to base a more equitable framework for improved international cooperation.
Until recent problems associated with political differences between Zimbabwe and its European partners over land reforms, the Blair Research Laboratory (BRL) in Harare maintained excellent collaborative links with the Danish Bilharziasis Laboratory (DBL) from 1981 to 2001 (Political disagreements between the Zimbabwe and Danish governments led to closure of the Danish embassy in Harare in 2001 and subsequent termination of formal scientific cooperation between BRL and DBL). Initially, the collaboration was aimed at strengthening research capability at BRL to improve its capacity to conduct scientific research to solve health problems confronting the people of Zimbabwe. Later, the cooperation was extended to a regional non-governmental research organization--Biomedical Research and Training Institute (BRTI) founded in 1995 to coordinate strengthening of research capability in southern Africa using a South-South cooperation model.
In the next paragraphs, we have reviewed and discussed pertinent lessons in North-South and South-South cooperation based on the interactions of BRL and BRTI and with DBL and with other research institutions in southern Africa and internationally.
SUSTAINING NATIONAL COOPERATION IN HEALTH RESEARCH
In line with national health-research strategy, BRL (Box 1) encourages researchers working in health programmes, local universities, and other institutions to conduct priority research of national importance. To support national cooperation in health research, BRL manages funds specifically allocated by Parliament to support essential national health research (ENHR). (The ENHR funds were first established in 1999 with dedicated line items for ENHR and AIDS research, and these are worth US$ 300,000 per annum). In addition, it ran regular workshops on research methodology and data analysis for multidisciplinary teams of researchers at district level to provide them with the skills for conducting health systems research. …