Why local think tanks are the secret weapon in Africa’s development armoury

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Posted  Monday, January 31   2011 at  00:00

As a new year begins, African nations look set to take forward the solid progress of recent years into 2011.

Rates of growth in some countries across the continent are among the fastest in the world, potentially creating vast development opportunities.

Yet the challenges of improving health and education, advancing good governance, protecting the environment and increasing respect for human rights remain as pressing as ever.

African policymakers and their partners need to find and implement increasingly innovative responses to all these issues if they are to accelerate progress on development. 

One exciting trend of the last few years has been the rise of an increasingly active think tank community across Africa.

By devising innovative solutions built on local research and local thinking, these African think tanks are starting to change the way development policy is made.

As Ghana’s growth reaches double digits, the Institute of Economic Affairs – a flourishing Accra-based think tank – is working closely with policymakers to ensure that the country’s fledgling oil industry becomes a positive force for development.

In Ghana’s last election, the Institute organised lively presidential and vice presidential debates and deployed election monitors across the country.

In neighbouring Benin, only two-thirds of children enrol in primary school, and only half those children complete their primary education.

But one small programme is leading to real change. By establishing local education councils, the Institute of Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE) gives community leaders the chance to work directly with local government to agree schooling priorities and decide how budgets are spent.

Rigorous research into what works will then be fed into the national government’s new framework for education – helping ensure that more children in Benin get the education they deserve.

Across Africa, thriving local think tanks are beginning to make a difference by giving local research an increasingly influential place in policymaking processes.

Faced with the growing challenge of food security, the Ethiopia Strategy Support Programme, a collaboration between the Ethiopian Development Research Institute and the International Food Policy Research Institute, is helping develop land rent policy to encourage investment in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector.

Researchers at Uganda’s Makerere Institute for Social Research sit on ministerial and technical committees, advising on policy issues from HIV/Aids to effective land use.

These think tanks are testimony to the fact that local research can drive real policy change.

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