Many African states are on a path towards political and economic transformation – an effort that often means complex choices for leaders and policymakers.
For think tanks on the continent, it’s a crucial opportunity to provide governments with options for development based on sound local research.
Scores of think tanks from Africa and around the world met recently in Pretoria, South Africa, to discuss ways to meet the challenge.
The summit was co-organized by The University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Society Program, the African Capacity Building Foundation [in Zimbabwe], the African Leadership Centre [in Kenya], and the [South Africa based] Institute for Security Studies.
The Pretoria-based ISS has played an influential role in South Africa’s economic and political development since the end of white-minority rule.
Jakkie Cilliers, the institute’s executive director, said the organization has worked constructively with the country's policymakers -- most recently on a national development plan that sets out the country's economic, social and political direction for the next 16 years.
'We’ve been trying to support the plan," he said, "In the process, the government did a forecast of South Africa’s population, [estimating that] we are going to have about 58 million people by 2030, [but] we said, no, it’s [going to be higher than] 66 million people. That’s a substantial difference in number you are forecasting. You have to plan for roads, schools, hospitals and so on.
"The government eventually took our [work] and [revised its] forecast," he continued. " [For us], when someone takes your point of view and makes it [their] own, that’s success.
The ISS is also broadening its role on the continent, with offices in Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Dakar. Cilliers says it helped the Economic Community of West African States draft a counter-terrorism strategy and a maritime strategy. And, it managed to convince the African Development Bank to adopt the use of cash grants to fight deep-seated poverty.
"For us, this is a major policy achievement," said Cilliers. "That is what we want to do – advance policy discussions in the right direction in ways that make a meaningful contribution."
Funding and independence
Despite their potential for success, Africa’s think tanks also face challenges.
The global financial crisis has brought a decline in funding from Western countries. And, some governments remain suspicious of foreign financial support.
Summit participants said one potential solution could include donor funding for long-term goals rather than short-term projects. They could also develop a membership base for contributions, and solicit funding from private sources, such as companies and endowments from African and Western philanthropists.
Professor Emmanuel Nnadozie is the executive director of the African Capacity Building Foundation, an independent organization that supports sustainable growth, poverty reduction and good governance in Africa. It’s been a fervent advocate of policy analysis and research institutes on the continent.
Nnadozie said to maintain credibility, the think tanks must ensure that funding from donor or other outside sources don’t impinge on their independence.
"We are encouraging them to look for ways of [paying for organizational costs] – [like] fees for services -- and to aggressively look at other sources of funding, especially in the private sector and in emerging economies as well,'" he said.
Nnadozie said another challenge is improving links between research centers, government and civil society. Think tanks must also be able to make their findings readily available to the public and government – with the improved use of press releases, conferences and workshops, and social media.
"If research is not translated into products that can be easily utilized for policy making, then it becomes a challenge," he said. "So when research output is produced, somebody has to translate it into basic reports or bulletins or even policy notes that can be easily accessed by those who don’t have the expertise or technical skills to get it from [the data]."
The main outcome of the meeting was the establishment of a Pan African Network of think tanks that will share knowledge, data bases and research ideas, promote Africa values, and build the capacity of its members.
Organizers of the Pretoria conference said they hope the gathering will evolve into annual meetings. They say the aim was not to guarantee answers to think tank challenges, but to identify common interests and begin a search for solutions.
Participants said in many ways, research institutions are competitors– for funds, ideas, and influence. They say the future lies in cooperation as well as competition – a lesson many developing countries and their neighbors are learning as well.