What is impact? Simply put, ‘impact’, and particularly ‘social impact’, refers to how actions or inactions, activities, projects, programmes or policies affect stakeholders, individuals and communities. In other words, what is the organisation’s story of change, and is this story of change ‘value for money’, sometimes called ‘social return on investment’?
The HSRC’s primary mandate is to promote and undertake human sciences research to understand social conditions and the process of social change. Its research contributes to policies and programmes that support South Africa’s development objectives, such as alleviating poverty, reducing inequality, and stimulating innovations for employment creation.
A policy or programme might have many different impacts, depending on its stakeholders and affected populations. To illustrate this, we draw on the example of COVID-19 vaccination policies and guidelines in South Africa.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 caught everyone by surprise. Governments worldwide enacted and implemented policies that had major implications for people’s lives. Periods of total lockdown, as well as preventive and containment measures, were introduced. The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines reduced infection rates and serious COVID-19 related illnesses. As a result, restrictions were eased, people started returning to work, travelling resumed, and masks were no longer mandatory outdoors. However, the uptake of vaccination in South Africa remains low compared to observed vaccination rates elsewhere in the world.
So, one could ask, what is the impact of vaccination in South Africa? The answer depends on who is asked. Below are some hypothetical examples of what impact might mean to different groups of people.
When measuring impact, it is thus important to be clear about who the target population is, and what time frames are under consideration. This forms a foundation for thinking about what change could be attributed to the intervention (activity, programme, project, or policy). Consequences can be intended or unintended, positive or negative. Any observed changes or impacts are rarely a result of a single action or group, but an aggregate of efforts from different actions and actors. So, to understand attribution, one needs to conceptualise and map a causal pathway, theory of change or causal models, and design a measurement framework that aims to capture key contributors towards desired changes.
Research funders are increasingly asking about real measurable benefits – which requires impact assessments of the interventions, programmes, projects and policies that emerge from funded research. There is thus increasing demand for monitoring, measurement, analysis, and reporting on impact.
Government: Vaccination resulted in lower rates of hospitalisations and death, thus reducing pressure on the healthcaresystem.
Company/organisation 1 (hospitality industry): Vaccinations meant the industry started opening up again for business after over a year of being shut down. Employees could come back to work and support their families again.
Company/organisation 2 (research council entity, e.g. HSRC): Public resistance to vaccinations presented an opportunity for the HSRC to undertake research on vaccine hesitancy, including research to better understand why some people are sceptical about vaccinations, while others readily accept them.
The impact of the HSRC’s research on vaccine hesitancy provides strategic evidence and analysis. This research helped to quantify levels of vaccine hesitancy in surveyed communities; expand understanding of low vaccination uptake; inform the design and implementation of policies and programmes that increase vaccine uptake; and inform programme design to increase public COVID-19 vaccination knowledge.
General population 1 (pro-vaccine/vaccinated): Vaccination reduces the risk of death and serious illness, particularly among vulnerable groups. This allows the economy to open up again, and makes it possible for life to slowly return to some sort of normalcy: people can return to work, travel locally and internationally, attend gatherings, etc.
General population 2 (anti-vaccination/unvaccinated): There are many unknowns about the COVID-19 virus. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine makes some people anxious about taking it. Certain groups, such as young people with no underlying health conditions have a lower risk for serious illnesses, and so have less incentive to be vaccinated.
Some organisations have made it mandatory for all workers to be vaccinated before they are allowed to go back to work. This has resulted in labour disputes where some unvaccinated people who are not willing to be vaccinated have lost their jobs.
Most international travel requires proof of full vaccination, and in some cases proof of negative PCR tests. This has resulted in some people being unable to travel because they are unwilling to be vaccinated.