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GCRF Research for Health in Conflict (R4HC-MENA)

Developing capability, partnerships and research in the Middle and Near East (MENA)


Two billion people currently live in areas of conflict and fragility, reflecting a rapid increase in wars, ethnic strife and other man-made disasters since 2010. The world is also experiencing the greatest forced migration crisis since the Second World War with 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, 21.3 million refugees and a further 10 million stateless people. Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region protracted conflicts in countries such as Syria and Libya, as well as Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, have led to dramatic increases of refugee populations in Turkey, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jordan. War-affected populations from these countries have undergone the epidemiological transition and therefore present new health challenges. In particular, the diagnosis, management and treatment of non-communicable diseases present new challenges for domestic health systems, as well as for humanitarian and development aid providers. These challenges also threaten domestic health commitments to Universal Health Coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.  This new humanitarian-development-health nexus demands a unique research agenda radically different from traditional approaches that address health challenges in low-income countries with weak governments, institutions and a mainly communicable disease burden. Without proper research capacity to generate crucial evidence to inform health policy and care, it will be impossible for countries in the MENA region to plan for rational and affordable health systems, sound economic policy and more effective aid effectiveness. 

The vision for the R4HC (Research for Health in Conflict)-MENA partnership, which is supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund, is to build sustainable research capacity in this region to address major health challenges arising from conflict, specifically cancer and mental health as key NCDs. R4HC-MENA will build research capacity in four distinct areas: (1) conflict and health; (2) the political economy of health in conflict; (3) cancer; and (4) mental health research in regions of conflict. The building of research capacity will focus on training staff in a variety of theoretical and practical methods for studying these areas, as well as conducting and publishing research projects to build further capability and disseminate findings. R4HC-MENA will enable lead countries in this region to grow and sustain research capacity that can critically inform aspects of health development that relate to armed conflict in the region. This will inform not only regional and international policy-makers, but also the development of affordable and equitable clinical models of care and pathways in complex NCDs such as cancer and mental health. R4HC-MENA will also link together regional ministries and academic centres, and key international partners, to widen the research to policy translation, and critically inform the health development agenda in other regions affected by conflict.

The project will be delivered through a consortium of universities led by King’s College, London and involving Cambridge, Chatham House, and Imperial College, London along with several international partners (most in the MENA region), including the American University of Beirut, Haccetepe University, Bir Zeit University, and the King Hussein Cancer Centre, and Teachers College (Columbia University). The CBR’s contribution falls under the work streams on political economy (Brendan Burchell, Adam Coutts, Simon Deakin, Adel Daoud and Larry King) and mental health (Tomas Folke, Kai Ruggeri). The CBR will be collaborating with a number of other Cambridge-based departments including the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) and the Department of Sociology.

Political economy

The aim of the political economy work stream is to provide systematic and empirically grounded research capacity in the political economy of health in conflict in MENA countries, particularly around methods to examine the historical development and policies of their health systems, and the current role of government, the private sector, international donors and humanitarian agencies.  The Syrian conflict and humanitarian crisis have affected almost all countries of the MENA region but have had particularly profound effects on Syria’s immediate neighbours. This new context of crisis requires deepened knowledge about the political economy in the region, guiding the formation of new health policies particularly in NCDs such as cancer and mental health, which have been neglected within the policy response. Indeed, a recent analysis of health in the MENA region highlights the key problems of ignoring political economy approaches in understanding health concerns.  In addition to the increasing NCD burden, the region has long suffered from a sustained under-investment in both public health systems and health research. Powerful actors with vested interests - governments, donors, NGOs and the private sector - shape national health agendas, including the formation of social protection systems. However, the research capacity to conduct programs that can inform evidence-based policies is severely lacking. There is an urgent need to design and build multi-sectoral responses based on evidence generated within the MENA region. The project will incorporate multidisciplinary research capacity approaches across policy sectors, such as ministries of development, labour, social affairs and public health.

Mental health

The mental health work stream aims to build interdisciplinary research capability for mental health in both Palestine and Lebanon. Armed conflict and organised violence cause and amplify psychosocial stressors (e.g. poverty, malnutrition, inadequate housing and social isolation), which adversely affect people’s mental health and wellbeing. Conflict-affected populations have been shown to have a higher prevalence of both common and severe mental disorders compared to the general population. Treatment gaps are widened especially in conflict affected areas of the MENA region due to inadequate infrastructure and human resources. A recent assessment of a refugee population in North and Bekaa region in Lebanon reported a significant 65 per cent impairment in daily functioning due to untreated trauma experiences and feelings of hopelessness in the individuals. The situation has been shown to be particularly grave for refugees and internally displaced persons, with treatment gaps reaching over 90 per cent in some areas. At a systems level, there is limited government spending on mental health (Palestine: 2.5 per cent; Lebanon: 5 per cent); minimal inpatient facilities, day care or residential facilities; a severe lack of staff and no mental health law. In line with the WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, Palestine and Lebanon have begun to design and implement their nation’s own mental health strategy by investing in delivering affordable and equitable mental health care for both domestic and refugee populations. Unfortunately, there is a lack of systematic mental health research conducted in these regions, due to capacity issues. The project will fill this gap. 

Political economy

In the political economy work stream the project will be focusing on training MENA and UK faculty to conduct systematic analysis of regional health policy and systems in conflict. This will involve a contextual analysis looking at population movements, protection and asylum policies before and as crises unfold (e.g. implications of countries not signatories of 1951 Refugee Convention such as Lebanon), health system preparedness with regards to cancer and mental health, and more broadly related to Universal Health Coverage, as well as governance and organizational arrangements of healthcare for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) as part of the humanitarian response. In collaboration with our MENA partners the CBR will utilise existing Ministry of Health (Lebanon and Jordan), UNHCR and World Bank data. An audit of existing secondary data sets such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) and the Demographic and Health Surveys (USAID) will also be undertaken as research training. The CBR will establish contextual sensitive population surveys in collaboration with the work streams focusing on cancer and mental health to build research capacity around the use of multilevel regression models to capture the hierarchical nature of our sampling procedure (individuals living in households, in villages, in cities, in wider regions). The CBR will also use matching procedures to reduce model bias and ensure comparability between the analysed cases.

Mental health

In the mental health workstream, the CBR assists the Global Mental Health Lab, Teachers College, Columbia University in expanding their local capacity-building projects on depression care for both the Lebanese and the displaced communities in Lebanon, in line with Lebanon Ministry of Public Health’s National Mental Health Strategy. Activities to be implemented and assessed include the scale-up of Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) and Interpersonal Counseling for primary care (IPC) among mental health providers in Lebanon; scale-up and evaluation of adoption of IMPACT collaborative care platform (University of Washington AIMS Center) in primary healthcare centers; as well as evaluation of IPT’s effectiveness in treatment of common mental health conditions in these settings. CBR will provide shared expertise in building research capacity in Implementation Science and Policy Research through delivery of certificate-based training workshops. Other deliverables will encompass the national dissemination of IPT in Lebanon, and setting up a local supervisory network and online collaborative platform. CBR will also validate an Arabic version of the European Social Survey’s Well-being questionnaire, and evaluate the impacts of IPT implementation on the policy-level.

The project began in the autumn of 2017 and is currently in the set-up stage.

Political economy

Adam Coutts and Adel Daoud have been designing a political economy audit of the Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish health systems. Mental health and cancer care will be used as the case studies. The members of the team have also made progress in setting up interviews with key informants in the region including health ministries, private sector health providers, the UN and NGOs in partner countries. A pilot study for the fieldwork stage of the work will be carried out later in 2018. This will consist of a scoping exercise to establish how best to overcome obstacles to data collection, including ‘survey fatigue’ in the region. A number of novel techniques for getting round these problems, including use of social media, are being considered. 

Mental health

To meet R4HC aims for Year One (2017-2018), the CBR’s partners in the Global Mental Health Lab (Teachers College, Columbia University) trained mental health providers in Lebanon to meet competency criteria in Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) as supervisors and providers; systematically collected outcomes of patients who accessed individual IPT treatment; piloted integration of the IMPACT collaborative care platform in a primary healthcare center in Lebanon; and have been engaging with stakeholders expand treatment in primary and specialty clinics serving host and refugee communities.

Journal articles

Verra, S., Benzerga, A., Jiao, B., and Ruggeri, K., (2018) "Health promotion at work: a comparison of policy and practice across Europe", Safety and Health at Work, forthcoming.

Book chapters

Huppert, F. and Ruggeri, K. (2018) "Policy challenges: well-being as a priority in public mental health." In D. Bhugra, K. Bhui, S. Wong, & S. Gilman (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Public Mental Health (Oxford: OUP).


Ruggeri, K. (2019) Behavioral Insights for Public Policy: Cases and Concepts (London and New York: Routledge). 

Working papers

Ruggeri, K., Robbiani, A., Tamming, T., Evans, H., Jones, L., & Folke, T. (under review), "It’s not what you nudge, it’s who you nudge: Communicating evidence to policymakers and the public", Palgrave Communications.