Focusing on Funding: Thoughts from a Maternal Health Workshop in Johannesburg

By Rebecca Irons


This September I had the great privilege to attend a early-careers workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, “Towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC): promoting and responding to Maternal, Neonatal, Child and Adolescent Health (MNCAH)”. Jointly organised by the South-African based Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Aga Khan University in Kenya, and Imperial College London, this workshop was international in scope – with participants joining from South Africa, Kenya, and the UK. I found myself as one of a small handful of anthropologists among the obstetricians, the doctors, the public health workers and the demographers, and the only one working in a geographical zone outside of the three organising countries. However, joined by similar problems of high maternal mortality rates and discriminatory health systems, there was nevertheless much to be gleaned from my participation. I will attempt to avoid another post about ‘learning to work cross-disciplinarily’ (however important a point I think that it is), and instead offer up a different reflexion on this event, and one which was arguably central to the workshop itself. Funding, and how to get it.

It’s certainly not a new concept to me, having had spent the best part of 2015 dedicating myself to my own PhD-funding applications. And whilst it is clearly rather complicated for one to undertake doctoral research without it, I would not have said that my proposal was directed for that sole purpose; first I identified a worthwhile project and my worrying about the finances came second (although maybe it should have been the other way around). This workshop presented a slightly different approach to proposal planning.


We were put into teams according to our research interests, mine being maternal health, and over one week we jointly developed a project proposal that could be presented to potential funders in order to obtain grants. This was achieved in a number of ways. For example, through much group discussion, the development of presentations that were delivered to all of the workshop participants, and one particularly ‘interesting’ full-day session during which we were coached on the concept of ‘design thinking’, a way to approach the marketing of yourself (and your project) to funders, a concept which we all agreed held some potentially questionable attitudes towards ethnography and assumption-making about other people.

By the end of the week, we had developed a well-thought out project that could be taken forward by those who wished to do so. It was no secret that this proposal, and those from the other groups, were designed specifically to get grants. And there is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it seems incredibly wise. Although at first the concept of nicely-packaged projects with which to seduce funders seemed a little crude to me, it is also true that without the money, academic research cannot take place. My own research wouldn’t be taking place right now. I left this workshop ever grateful that I’d been able to secure funding in the first place, and with refined skills on how to go about seeking further grants in the future. However I was also left wondering why such vital information isn’t more widely taught to masters, and even undergraduate anthropology students, who (speaking from my own experiences) must wait until they reach their doctoral studies to go through this process that is so important to survival in academia.

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