Smart Collaboration: Working Together to Improve Maternal, Newborn and Child Health

By Dr. Stanley Zlotkin, Chief of the Centre for Global Child Health and Senior Scientist at the SickKids Research Institute, and Dr. Melanie Barwick, Senior Associate Scientist and Scientific Director of Knowledge Translation of Child Health Evaluative Sciences at the SickKids Research Institute and Centre for Global Child Health, on behalf of the Muskoka Initiative Consortium Knowledge Management Initiative. This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on May 27, 2014.

In the run-up to this week’s international summit, Saving Every Woman, Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach, taking place May 28-30, in Toronto, much focus has been on how the global health community can accelerate progress toward the achievement of UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) four and five, targeted at reducing the rates of maternal and child mortality.

One key approach to progress is through collective leadership and the pursuit of smart collaborations. Smart collaboration is about leveraging both the unique strengths of individual organizations and synergies among partners, in working together toward a common goal. Through smart collaboration, organizations working on maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) issues can share lessons learned from our collective experience across sectors and amplify our individual impact. As organizations dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families in resource-poor environments around the world, we strive to develop and deliver innovative approaches to promote improved maternal and child health and achieve the greatest impact and return on investment, on behalf of our funders, our public supporters, and importantly for the communities that we seek to help.

By pooling expertise, knowledge and data, we can collectively drive evidence-based approaches for promoting maternal and child health that can inform policy, guide more effective program/project design and identify the most effective strategies for their implementation.

One example of smart collaboration in action is the Muskoka Initiative Consortium Knowledge Management Initiative, a three-year project launched in 2012, spearheaded by the Muskoka Initiative Consortium of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose partners include CARE Canada, Plan Canada, Save the Children Canada and World Vision Canada. SickKids Centre for Global Child Health and the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, have partnered with the Muskoka Initiative Consortium members in order to combine the lessons learned from separate NGO programs — an innovative undertaking that is breaking new ground.

Data that are common across each of ten field projects being implemented by our NGO partners will be looked at collectively to shed light on how well these programs have addressed maternal and child health in marginalized and underserved communities. These ten MNCH projects span seven low and middle income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Pakistan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. By combining the data from these projects, the NGO partners and scientists from SickKids and the University of Toronto will then develop and share the key findings and lessons learned as part of a comprehensive knowledge translation (sharing what we know widely) strategy — contributing to evidence and best practices that shape future programs that can help save the lives of mothers and their children.

As part of this initiative, the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health team is conducting implementation research in four project sites. Working alongside Save the Children in Mali and CARE in Ethiopia, we are seeking to better understand the factors that influence whether programs are successfully implemented in these countries. Because effective health interventions only lead to good outcomes when they are delivered as intended, knowing which factors lead to successful implementation of MNCH interventions, like exclusive breastfeeding, will help us to improve program delivery and impact on health. A second collaboration, with World Vision in Tanzania and Plan International in Ghana, is exploring adolescent mothers’ experiences of accessing and utilizing antenatal care services, the regular medical care recommended for women during pregnancy. With the view of bridging what we know with what we actually do and enhancing the accessibility of services, we are tapping into the voices and experiences of adolescent mothers to better understand what motivates them to use antenatal care services that the NGOs and host governments have made available. Our goal is to develop guidance on how to make these services more adolescent-friendly, since they will greatly benefit the health and well-being of young mothers and their babies if they are used.

By bringing together the experts in program delivery on-the-ground — the NGOs — with the scientific and health experts — the academics — our collaboration combines frontline know-how with scientific rigor to provide a strong evidence-base that can inform both practice and policy.

We acknowledge that working collaboratively at this scale has not been without its challenges — but in our collective experience, the increased opportunity for impact makes those bumps in process, logistics and coordination all worthwhile.

Ultimately, smart collaboration is about working together to improve health outcomes for vulnerable, underserved and marginalized women and children in resource-poor environments. We share a vision for the improved well-being of mothers and children. Although uniting in coalition toward collective action is not always easy, it allows us to learn from each other and leverage our strengths to improve the lives of women and children globally.

Muskoka Initiative Consortium Knowledge Management Initiative partners include: CARE Canada; Plan Canada; Save the Children Canada; World Vision Canada (the Muskoka Initiative Consortium); SickKids Centre for Global Child Health and Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Project sites include the following:

  • CARE Canada — Ethiopia and Zimbabwe
  • Plan Canada — Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali and Zimbabwe
  • Save the Children Canada — Mali and Pakistan
  • World Vision Canada — Tanzania

These projects are funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), as part of the commitment to advancing MNCH, through the Muskoka Initiative on MNCH, announced by the Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the 36th G8 Summit (2010) in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.


July 22, 2014


Dr. Stanley Zlotkin