BACKGROUND: Partnerships are increasingly common in conducting research. However, there is little published evidence about processes in research-policy partnerships in different contexts. This paper contributes to filling this gap by analysing experiences of research-policy partnerships between Ministries of Health and research organisations for the implementation of the Mental Health and Poverty Project in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. METHODS: A conceptual framework for understanding and assessing research-policy partnerships was developed and guided this study. The data collection methods for this qualitative study included semi-structured interviews with Ministry of Health Partners (MOHPs) and Research Partners (RPs) in each country. RESULTS: The term partnership was perceived by the partners as a collaboration involving mutually-agreed goals and objectives. The principles of trust, openness, equality and mutual respect were identified as constituting the core of partnerships. The MOHPs and RPs had clearly defined roles, with the MOHPs largely providing political support and RPs leading the research agenda. Different influences affected partnerships. At the individual level, personal relationships and ability to compromise within partnerships were seen as important. At the organisational level, the main influences included the degree of formalisation of roles and responsibilities and the internal structures and procedures affecting decision-making. At the contextual level, political environment and the degree of health system decentralisation affected partnerships. CONCLUSIONS: Several lessons can be learned from these experiences. Taking account of influences on the partnership at individual, organisation and contextual/system levels can increase its effectiveness. A common understanding of mutually-agreed goals and objectives of the partnership is essential. It is important to give attention to the processes of initiating and maintaining partnerships, based on clear roles, responsibilities and commitment of parties at different levels. Although partnerships are often established for a specific purpose, such as carrying out a particular project, the effects of partnership go beyond a particular initiative
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