Whilst more focussed on the working of health systems than of research, this article explores the challenges of developing conversations about health which do justice to the complexities of the interactions between health, belief and identity. The argument is that putting the hard work in is essential if evidence of value and understanding that can be worked with is to come out.
Community-based approaches are a critical foundation for many health outcomes, including reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH). Evidence is a vital part of strengthening that foundation, but largely focuses on the technical content of what must be done, rather than on how disparate community actors continuously interpret, implement and adapt interventions in dynamic and varied community health systems. We argue that efforts to strengthen evidence for community programmes must guard against the hubris of relying on a single approach or hierarchy of evidence for the range of research questions that arise when sustaining community programmes at scale. Moving forward we need a broader evidence agenda that better addresses the implementation realities influencing the scale and sustainability of community programmes and the partnerships underpinning them if future gains in community RMNCH are to be realised. This will require humility in understanding communities as social systems, the complexity of the interventions they engage with and the heterogeneity of evidence needs that address the implementation challenges faced. It also entails building common ground across epistemological word views to strengthen the robustness of implementation research by improving the use of conceptual frameworks, addressing uncertainty and fostering collaboration. Given the complexity of scaling up and sustaining community RMNCH, ensuring that evidence translates into action will require the ongoing brokering of relationships to support the human creativity, scepticism and scaffolding that together build layers of evidence, critical thinking and collaborative learning to effect change.