Health research initiatives worldwide are growing in scope and complexity, particularly as they move into the developing world. Expanding health research activity in low- and middle-income countries has resulted in a commensurate rise in the need for sound ethical review structures and functions in the form of Research Ethics Committees (RECs). Yet these seem to be lagging behind as a result of the enormous challenges facing these countries, including poor resource availability and lack of capacity. There is thus an urgent need for ongoing capacity and resource development in these regions in general, and in Africa in particular. Similarly, there is a need for research and initiatives that can identify existing capacity and funding and indicate the areas where this needs to be developed.
This discussion paper argues that the Mapping African Research Ethics Capacity (MARC) project is a timely initiative aimed at identifying existing capacity. MARC provides a platform and tool on the Council on Health Research for Development's (COHRED) Health Research website (HRWeb), which can be used by RECs and key stakeholders in health research in Africa to identify capacity, constraints and development needs. MARC intends to provide the first comprehensive interactive database of RECs in Africa, which will allow for the identification of key relationships and analyses of capacity. The potential of MARC lies in the mapping of current ethical review activity onto capacity needs. This paper serves as a starting point by providing a descriptive illustration of the current state of RECs in Africa.