Authored by Tamara Giles-Vernick, Christopher Pell (for SoNAR GLOBAL) and Annie Wilkinson, Hayley MacGregor (for SSHAP).

Managing public health crises requires diverse expertise – COVID-19 has made this very clear. As debates rage about how to control the pandemic and balance the negative impacts of public health responses, the world is experiencing a range of social and economic shocks. Social scientists – anthropologists, sociologists, historians, ethicists, and political scientists etc. – have much to offer. Not least, to understand the politics of these debates and how to respond in a way that considers the social dynamics of a particular setting, and protects the most vulnerable,

Although the social dimensions of epidemics, of cholera, of TB etc have long been acknowledged, investment in the required social science capacity has not always been forthcoming. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a turning point. Many agencies and funders advocated for building capacity in applied social science to address emerging infectious disease. GLOPID-R, for example titled one report, “Towards people-oriented epidemic responses”.

Two initiatives, SoNAR-Global and the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) are collaborating to build social science capacity in and for public health emergencies. There are strong links between these consortia: The UK’s Institute for Development Studies (IDS) is a partner in Sonar and SSHAP and the coordinator of Sonar is also a member of the advisory board of SSHAP. Below we lay out how these initiatives are working together.

Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform

SSHAP aims to encourage effective, adaptive, contextually informed emergency responses, planned in consultation with affected communities and local institutions, and based on social and interdisciplinary science and evidence. We do this by:

  • Establishing and mobilising social science networks with regional and subject expertise to provide insight for input into briefs and webinars focused on emerging and ongoing crises
  • Running a rapid response helpdesk to provide analysis tailored to demand and in accessible forms, such as evidence briefings and analysis.
  • Development of tools and training to support the use of social science in emergency operations
  • A fellowship scheme to build applied and operational social science capacity among both social scientists and emergency response practitioners
  • Fostering dialogue across academic, operational and policy making communities through roundtables and workshops to enhance emergency response
  • An open access website and social media platform providing essential resources including briefings, toolkits, evidence reviews and reports.

Established in 2016, SSHAP has been at the forefront of emergency social science. The platform has provided rapid contextual and social analysis and operational support for a range of emergencies, including recent Ebola outbreaks in DRC, drought and Cholera epidemics in the Horn of Africa, the Rohingya crisis, Venezuelan migrant movements, and Cyclone Idai in Mozambique.

SSHAP is a partnership between the Institute of Development StudiesAnthrologica and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with funding from UNICEF, USAID, DFID/FCDO and the Wellcome Trust.


SONAR-Global’s overall aim is to strengthen the role of social scientists in the understanding of and response to (re)emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and vaccine hesitancy. We are achieving this through:

  • Establishing and coordinating a global network of social scientists and other stakeholders
  • Creating regional hubs to catalyse new, collaborative social sciences and cross disciplinary initiatives for EIDs and AMR
  • Developing an open-access platform and database of researchers and stakeholders
  • Adapting, testing, and evaluating vulnerability assessment tools and engagement models
  • Creating, piloting, and evaluating training curricula on EIDs/AMR preparedness and response for social scientists, and on the social dimensions of EIDs and AMR for non-social scientists

Established in 2019 with support from the European Commission as part of the H2020 programme, SoNAR-Global has recently received additional support from the EC to expand its work on vulnerability assessment, community engagement, and capacity building. These activities have increased the number of SoNAR-Global partners (now 15) and collaborating structures, which now include institutions in Uganda, Senegal, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Thailand, Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Malta, Slovenia, and France.


Since its establishment in 2019, SoNAR-Global has built a network of over 530 individual members and 15 consortia. On our web platform, we have developed a searchable directory of social scientists and other stakeholders working on EIDs, AMR and vaccination hesitancy.

As a global network, we build on our partners and members, harnessing regional expertise and establishing thematic hubs. So far, we have established active regional hubs, based in Bangkok, Kiev and Dakar. Each hub focuses its activities on a priority issue in the region: AMR in South East Asia, vaccine hesitancy in Eastern Europe, and training and epidemic response (including infodemics) in West Africa. In East Africa, we are building a hub for vulnerability assessment training. We are also establishing a global thematic hub on the social dimension of viral hepatitis.

SONAR-Global partners are actively involved with multiple international networks and institutions, including GloPID-R, JPIAMR, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. Six members participate in the WHO Research and Innovation Roadmap’s social science Expert Group for COVID-19: two are leading a methodologies group for this WHO Roadmap, and one partner is a lead social scientist in the WHO West and Central Africa COVID-19 Platform. SSHAP has contributed to the COVID-19 response, also via membership of the WHO Roadmap’s social science group, and in contributions to UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines, as well in collaboration with Africa Centres for Disease Control. SSHAP builds thematic or regional networks of experts to provide insights into emerging response challenges and to questions from partners. This includes critical friends in key agencies to ensure that outputs are operationally relevant.

Capacity building

SoNAR-Global is building social science capacity for understanding and responding to EIDs, AMR and vaccine hesitancy. A particular priority of SoNAR-Global is to enhance social sciences capacity in low- and middle-income countries. To achieve this, we mapped teaching materials (available in a database on our website) and surveyed perceived needs for social sciences training related to EIDs and AMR. With the assistance of two expert committees, we have developed two specialized trainings for social scientists: one on epidemic preparedness and response, and another on AMR. In the coming months, we will develop two additional operational trainings for epidemics and AMR, as well as for our vulnerability assessment methodology. Trainings for trainers will take place throughout 2021.

With earlier UNICEF funding, SSHAP conducted training for UNICEF country level staff. With further funding, SHHAP is establishing a Fellowship Programme, which is currently being adapted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions. We will instigate knowledge translation, peer support, mentoring and targeted training through the fellowship programme which will be integrated into our networking activities. This will enable selected social scientists working in LMIC contexts which are vulnerable to health emergencies, to engage in a community of practice, and support them in making their knowledge operational and to engage with practitioners. Simultaneously practitioners will be brought in as fellows, especially those in a position to use social science intelligence to design research or programmes in the field. This will build on the social science training course previously developed for UNICEF.


SSHAP responded to outbreaks of Ebola in Equateur (2018) and North Kivu (2018- 2020), publishing over 20 briefings on context, health-seeking practices, vaccination, death and funerary practices, cross-border movements and remote analysis of community feedback. SSAHP hosted roundtables with key stakeholders and regular briefings with partners including DFID, UK SAGE, USAID, OFDA, UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, CDC, Save the Children and others.

SoNAR-Global responded to the North Kivu Ebola epidemic by conducting a mapping of operational social sciences research in collaboration with GOARN-Research Social Sciences. It also participated in consultations with the WHO, GOARN and other actors during this epidemic.

For COVID-19, SSHAP has produced over 19 rapid briefings with a thematic or regional focus (e.g. on quarantine, misinformation, home care, etc.), which are produced in English and translated into relevant additional languages. SHHAP has held a roundtable series with Africa CDC and are participating in the WHO Research Roadmap Social Science. Through briefings (e.g. on shielding, regional contexts), opinion pieces (e.g. on alternatives to lockdown in African settings) and roundtables, SSHAP has been at the forefront of increasingly-accepted positions that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that community organisations have key roles to play in locally-adapted strategies to COVID-19.

SoNAR-Global has sought to build a repository of social science resources on COVID-19. It has mapped over 180 social sciences related to the COVID-19 response. Other resources include relevant readings (case studies, ethnographic notes, policy briefs), podcasts (“Epi-Casts”), webinars and audio reflections. We have developed at least one webinar in collaboration with SSHAP, and look forward to doing more.

Tools and methods

SoNAR-Global has developed multiple resources for social scientists around the world. In addition to an extensive evaluation of the governance of epidemics and AMR and a scoping analysis of vulnerability assessment (VA) methodologies, the teams have adapted a VA methodology for infectious diseases (ID-VA), one for AMR, and will produce a third for vaccine hesitancy. The purpose of the VA is to develop locally-meaningful definitions of vulnerability and resilience and identify concrete actions and interventions. The infectious disease VA tool was piloted in Kampala (Uganda) in early 2020, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa. The VA approach sets the foundations for community engagement (CE) with relevant stakeholders, and to that end, we have also mapped and evaluated community engagement structures in Ukraine, Uganda and Bangladesh, collecting information on interventions, programs and projects on AMR or infectious diseases to involve communities and seek community feedback. The combined VA-CE approach, conducted in Uganda, Bangladesh, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Malta, with scale up in Switzerland and Denmark, will be fully documented and evaluated. All training materials based on these activities will be fully accessible on the SoNAR-Global platform.

Beyond emergency response, to develop capacity and support the use of applied social science in emergency operations SSHAP developed the “Social Science and epidemics” portfolio with support from OFDA/USAID. This gathers the social science lessons learned from previous epidemics (4 reviews of Ebola, Influenza, Cholera and Rift Valley Fever) and building on those, has developed 12 case studies and 6 tools to show how social science knowledge can be made actionable in the field.

In the development of tools and methods, the SoNAR-Global and SSHAP approaches are clearly complementary, particularly in their concern for employing social science tools and methods yielding knowledge that can be operationalized in urgent situations.

Mainstreaming social science in responses to infectious disease emergencies

There has been much progress in terms of recognising the value and role of social science in emergencies.

In our distinct ways, SSHAP and SoNAR-Global offer complementary networking, communications, tools, and capacity building to strengthen the integration of the social sciences into epidemic preparedness and into all pillars of responses to urgent health settings. Our combined initiatives increase integration of wide-ranging social sciences insights into the political, social and economic dimensions of (re)emerging infectious diseases and AMR. They also develop new and useful approaches to creating actionable knowledge and intervention.

We are committed to building social sciences capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from infectious disease emergencies.