African think tanks in policy making

Beatrice MugambeBeatrice Mugambe, Executive Director at Development Research and Training reflects on recent discussions at the World Economic Forum for Africa.

The views and opinions of guest bloggers do not necessarily represent the views of Development Initiatives.

How can African think tanks contribute?

Africa has few vibrant think tanks. African governments don’t tend to value them and in-country donors don’t tend to fund them. This means the majority of African think tanks do not influence national and the global policy making.

At a private meeting held at the margins of the World Economic Forum (WEF) for Africa 2013, I was among participants from think tanks, research organisations and academia. We discussed the current and potential role of think thanks in Africa and the new approaches that they can adopt to increase their effectiveness. The questions posed included asking whether existing think tanks are effectively playing their role, and if not, then why not?  There is no doubt that think thanks play a critical role in Africa’s policy processes; a number of them are already doing so, but for various reasons, the role of the majority of think thanks is currently considered to be minimal. And yet  think tanks can provide policy options on the challenges Africa faces and the economies that relate to people’s lives.

Today, there are two narratives about Africa. One states Africa has realised increased economic growth of 5–7% with potential for this to be increased and sustained; the other speaks about rising poverty, income inequality, conflict and a rising burden of disease among its population. Think tanks can provide analysis that puts these two narratives into context and perspective by adding value and explaining the issues underlying these statistics.

What is holding back African think tanks?

Among the challenges faced, African think tanks do not have a platform to set their own agenda. They are usually funded by foreign and international agencies and lack adequate funding to engage in long-term research programmes and so cannot always provide long-term oriented policy options. At times, their own governments and development partners do not have much regard for the research produced and this affects uptake of policy options. In other instances, think tanks cannot always communicate and engage with policy makers due to political factors, with governments even categorising think tanks alongside opposition parties and forces. African think tanks also often lack adequate technical capacity to respond to dynamic policy processes. They usually have limited numbers of staff to undertake research and so cannot engage on diverse subjects at the same time. In other instances, the available staff are not well exposed to regional and global platforms to share, learn and build their analytical capacity from other like-minded institutions.

What then should African think tanks do differently?

Firstly, African think tanks should set the agenda, build their ability to complete rigorous analysis, generate credible policy recommendations and respond in a timely way with policy options including investing in building scenarios. They need to work on issues that represent the various interest groups in a country that need policy responses to improve their quality of life and livelihood. These might include the unemployed, organised labour, emerging informal business among others. For this to happen, African think tanks need to establish domestic sources of funding, invest in communication strategies, use social media and other means to communicate to policy makers. They should build constituencies of interest groups, understand their policy issues and generate analysis on these issues. They can also build alliances with other think tanks in the global south and global north for shared learning and actions.

Beatrice Mugambe, Executive Director, Development Research and Training