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UNICEF operates in 190 countries and territories, where it advocates for the protection of children’s rights and helps meet children’s basic needs to reach their full potential. Embedded implementation research (IR) is an approach to health systems strengthening in which (a) generation and use of research is led by decision-makers and implementers; (b) local context, priorities, and system complexity are taken into account; and (c) research is an integrated and systematic part of decision-making and implementation. By addressing research questions of direct relevance to programs, embedded IR increases the likelihood of evidence-informed policies and programs, with the ultimate goal of improving child health and nutrition.
This paper presents UNICEF’s embedded IR approach, describes its application to challenges and lessons learned, and considers implications for future work.
From 2015, UNICEF has collaborated with global development partners (e.g. WHO, USAID), governments and research institutions to conduct embedded IR studies in over 25 high burden countries. These studies focused on a variety of programs, including immunization, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, birth registration, nutrition, and newborn and child health services in emergency settings. The studies also used a variety of methods, including quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods.
UNICEF has found that this systematically embedding research in programs to identify implementation barriers can address concerns of implementers in country programs and support action to improve implementation. In addition, it can be used to test innovations, in particular applicability of approaches for introduction and scaling of programs across different contexts (e.g., geographic, political, physical environment, social, economic, etc.). UNICEF aims to generate evidence as to what implementation strategies will lead to more effective programs and better outcomes for children, accounting for local context and complexity, and as prioritized by local service providers. The adaptation of implementation research theory and practice within a large, multi-sectoral program has shown positive results in UNICEF-supported programs for children and taking them to scale.