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International donors are well placed to help developing countries strengthen their health research systems, says a report from an international agency.

The Council on Health Research and Development (COHRED)'s report, published last month (December), urges global health programmes to include "strategies to build the health research systems of their partner countries as a part of their work".

According to the report, donors often set the health research priorities in developing countries through 'vertical' programmes that tend to concentrate on a specific area.

These programmes, the report authors say, could become catalysts to strengthen research capacity in the long term by investing in the development of research systems.

Kit Vaughan, deputy dean for research in the faculty of health sciences at South Africa's University of Cape Town, confirmed the report's findings that funding — not internal priorities — dictates research agendas, noting that over half his faculty's US$30 million annual research budget went towards studying infectious diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria.

"This means that the high burden of cardiovascular and mental health diseases are largely underfunded," he told SciDev.Net.

Additionally, project funding from donors often doesn't cover the cost of overheads — such as information technology access, human resources management, electricity and water, and library facilities — putting further strain on health infrastructure, according to Vaughan.

The recent initiative by The Wellcome Trust to establish research capacity strengthening programmes in Africa (see New initiative seeks to strengthen African research) could help to rectify this and is "very encouraging", says Vaughan.

Some low-income countries find that most research conducted within them is donor-driven. Andrew Kitua and colleagues from Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research analysed Tanzanian health research funds between 1991 and 2000 and found that 100 per cent came from foreign sources.

And Uganda's National Council for Science and Technology found no state funding for health research in 2005, while externally-funded projects were worth US$24 million.

"When I was appointed as health minister in Mozambique, I thought I would be minister of health; instead I was minister of health projects — funded by donor countries," Pascoal Mocumbi, former Mozambique minister of health says in the report.

See Letter to the editor.