In a bid to advance independent policy research in Africa, American and Canadian partners have pledged $30 million to strengthen a growing think-tank community. 

Twenty-four African think tanks from Kenya to Senegal will receive long term, flexible funding to create a space for innovation and research in Africa's policy arena.

The Think Tank Initiative, which aims to strengthen local policy research in developing countries, launched its Africa program this week at the annual meeting of the African Development Bank in Dakar.

Canada's International Development Research Center, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation have pledged a total of $90 million to the initiative over five years.

"The main objective is to provide core support to policy research organizations in a way that they can be more influential, that can increase their credibility, increase the quality of research and then influence policy-makers, influence the community outside of the policy-makers, the NGOs and so on," said Marie-Claude Martin, the program leader of the Think Tank Initiative. "And being visible in terms of helping the country go through the different economic and social challenges they are facing."

The African think-tank community is relatively young, but growing fast.  From more than 300 applications, the initiative selected 24 think tanks from east and west Africa, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.

Martin says much of the research currently produced by think tanks is demand-driven because institutions are forced to rely on intermittent project funding.  This, she says, stifles innovation.

"I think Africa suffers from this lack of strategic thinking, thinking ahead on what would be the main issues and institutions need this space, this room to think independently having the support and the funding to do that," said Martin.

Jean Mensa is Executive Director of Ghana's Institute of Economic Affairs, one of the think tanks that received funding.  She says the grant will improve national debate in Ghana.

"It will energize us and it will allow us to plan and to engage in more long term strategic planning and to follow our plan," said Mensa.  "It would also enable us to recruit and retain high caliber staff who would then contribute more to the policy formulation of our country, Ghana, by engaging in independent and innovative research.  And it will allow us to maintain our independence."

Mensa says there has been huge progress since the institute was established twenty years ago as Ghana's first public policy center.

"At the time Ghana was at the twilight of a military rule and there was no space for policy debate and discussion, let alone policy engagement.  We went through some challenges.  We were seen as opposition, we were called counter-revolutionaries and so on," said Mensa.

Mensa says, now the Ghanaian government looks to the institute for research on current policy issues.

In the recent presidential elections, the government used the presidential transition bill proposed by the Institute of Economic Affairs as guidelines for the transition.

Mensa says every country needs independent research that will help shape policy.  The role of think tanks, she says, is vital to development.