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

Monday January 31 2011

By MARIE-CLAUDE MARTIN

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.

But while developing country policymakers increasingly rely on the work of local think tanks rather than the findings of research institutes in the West, only a few international donors give these institutions the recognition that they deserve.

In his recent speech at Georgetown University, Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group, called for the “democratisation of research” and the “need for a new way of searching for development solutions.”

This is a rare acknowledgment of the potential value of local researchers and institutions, but included in this “new way” should be the premise of supporting the research from these local actors – as well as supporting their capacity to conduct this research.

The reasons for supporting local research are clear. First, research by local think tanks has a legitimacy that Western research institutes cannot provide.

Local research more accurately reflects the realities on the ground and is less susceptible to outside pressure.

Local researchers have, of course, a vested interest in the development of the best possible policy.

And African policymakers would often prefer to consider homegrown policy proposals rather than those from outside their borders.

Second, there is growing evidence that building strong local think tanks can help to address the issue of “brain drain” in the developing world.

Stable funding enables think tanks to attract and retain quality staff, who may otherwise need to pursue more lucrative or secure work abroad or in other sectors.

It also enables African think tanks to share ideas with counterparts anywhere in the world, encouraging a global pool of knowledge to address urgent development challenges.

Finally, think tanks are more effective when they have stable, predictable core funding, and that is something donors can provide.

That funding must cover not just discrete research projects but office expenses, salaries and other day-to-day costs.

Sustained core funding also enables research institutions to define their own agendas and keep their independence.

As Léonard Wantchékon, the executive director of IERPE in Benin, says, “You can have the freedom to improve the range of research that you do, to be more creative and to follow what you, as a think tank, believe is important, not necessarily what the donors think is important.”

The Think Tank Initiative is a programme attempting to put these lessons into practice.

Supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development and the Netherlands Directorate-General for International Co-operation, it takes as its starting point the conviction that the sources of innovation in Africa need better support.

This is, we hope, the beginning of a genuine and wider shift in the international community.

For it is only by working with strong local think tanks that sound development policies will emerge, and deliver the results that have eluded us for so long.

Dr Marie-Claude Martin leads the Think Tank Initiative at the International Development Research Centre