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Posts tagged ‘Africa’

“Think Tanks in Africa: Catalysts for Ideas and Action” by Dr. Frannie Léautier

In this post Peter da Costa turns his attention to Dr. Frannie Léautier's presentation at the think tank summit. She argues that think tanks play a number of important roles as: Mediators, Trusted Advisors, Transformers, and Independent Thinkers. More importantly, she makes a strong case against the obsession with results: “If ACBF wanted immediate impact it would never have invested in think tanks for more than 20 years!"

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Is knowledge meant to solve technical problems or change the world?

In this second post on the think tanks' Summit, Peter da Costa reflects on Prof. Achille Mbembe's presentation at a recent African think tanks summit and poses an important question: can knowledge ever help change Africa unless it is critically grounded in reality? Otherwise, does it risk being nothing more than a provider of narrow solutions to even narrower expert-defined problems?

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Observations from a gathering of African Think Tanks: Of visas, rankings and existential threats

Peter da Costa reflects on a meeting of African Think Tanks where concerns about global rankings and threats to think tanks were discussed. He argues that think tanks in the region need to come together to learn from each other -but this needs to be an African initiative if it is ever to be successful.

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The external evaluation of the Think Tank Initiative: “what we’re learning, and how we’re responding to those lessons”

In this post, Peter Taylor, Program Manager of Think Tank Initiative, outlines the main findings of the TTI's first phase evaluation. The evaluators also identified a number of lessons and recommendations for the second phase: sharing, learning and collaboration are among them.

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Supporting think tanks series: Economic Policy Research Institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa

In this third think piece on supporting think tanks, Stephen Yeo critically outlines a not so recent history of initiatives, funds and projects. He identifies a number of compounding challenges: funding, human resources, lack of competition, and leadership. One of the overall results is a limited incentive for transformative change.

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Calls for new national think tanks in Africa: one or many?

Calls for new think tanks in Africa are getting more common. But while some see an opportunity for supporting the formation of several think tanks others favour large national Brookings-style centres. One big one or a few small ones?

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Economic downturn affects think tank funding

Foreign funding for think tanks seems to be decreasing, affecting institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Dependence on foreign funding and few domestic sources paint a worrying picture for their future. But is it the same for all?

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African Development Bank wants partnerships with leading think tanks; but is this the best way to support them?

"Partnering with think tanks needs to be part and parcel of the Bank's effort to become a strong knowledge broker" has said Hau Sing Tse, Executive Director of the African Development Bank for Canada, China, South Korea and Kuwait. But is this easier said than done?

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Foreign policy think tanks in developing countries

During the last couple of months we have been compiling a list of think tanks dedicated to foreign policy in developing nations. The idea behind this project was to get a better sense of the kind of topics that command the attention of researchers and policy makers when it comes to these nations’ relations to other countries and their interests in the international political arena. We were interested in this type of think tank in particular because, unlike their peers in the social and economic policy fields, domestic, rather than international, funders commonly fund these. And the search for sustainable and domestic sources of funding for think tanks in developing countries is a key concern for onthinktanks.org. The information that we have gathered from this first attempt at an annotated list of foreign policy think tanks has proven to be quite interesting, not only because of what we have found regarding the kind of topics they dedicate themselves to, but also because it brings up issues we have touched upon in the past, such as the use of social media and the nature of their funding. This post provides an analysis of the former.

One of the findings of the exercise is that foreign policy think tanks in developing nations are mostly focused on regional affairs. They care foremost about what is going on in their backyards, and so the topics they choose to research have to do with regional politics. For example, South Asian think tanks have much to do with security studies, be it traditional security or human security. Pakistani and Indian think tanks in particular deal with these issues, and are also interested in ethnic conflict, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. This is to be expected, as these are also the main concerns of the region. Most Middle Eastern think tanks deal with the Arab–Israeli conflict, particularly those that are of countries directly involved in it. Curiously, they do not seem to focus as much on security studies, when common sense would believe it would be a main point of interest, regarding the volatility of the region.

Latin American foreign policy think tanks dedicate their efforts towards regional cooperation, economic integration, democracy studies, and defense. This is probably the case because there is a current regional integration process going on, UNASUR, and because this region has always been concerned with inserting itself into the international economic system, as well as with democratic stability. Also interesting is that most Latin American think tanks are hosted by universities, which is a good indication that foreign policy is still more of an academic pursuit and that there is, generally, little room for (or interest in) influencing public policy.

We found very few foreign policy think tanks in Africa: our list only includes South Africa. The two think tanks included work on issues such as peacekeeping and conflict management, arms control and disarmament, refugees and internally displaced persons, and economic integration: all relevant topics to African politics today.

Southeast Asian institutions are also mainly interested in national defense, ASEAN membership and impact, and Asia Pacific security. Why so much focus on these issues? There has currently been a significant arms race going on in this part of the world, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog Asia Unbound pointed out in 2010:

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 alone, with Vietnam recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian submarines and jetfighters designed for attacking ships. Other recent buyers have included Malaysia, which recently spent nearly $1 billion on new submarines of its own, and Thailand, which has drawn up its own shopping list of submarines and more advanced jet fighters, while Indonesia and Singapore also have announced recent sizable arms purchases.

Countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are arming up to send a signal to a rising China that they will continue to protect their strategic interests and their claims to energy resources in areas like the South China Sea, the Mekong basin, and other regions. And though China has not deviated from its increasingly aggressive approach to Southeast Asia, these arms figures should give it pause.

Another explanation for why there seem to be so many foreign policy and security focused think tanks in this region is these countries’ developmental state and the regional dynamics that emerged between them. Their developmental status and proximity to each other has caused them to be in constant competition and so their relations with each other, as well as their security, are a main point of concern.

Another fact that called our attention was the high number of foreign policy think tanks in China. These, of course, are all either totally government-funded or have some link to the state. As mentioned in a previous post, Chinese think tanks are expected to conduct research and policy analysis on domestic, regional and global issues, assisting the government in policy formulation. This investment clearly signals that China is looking for a position of leadership in the future and explains the wide variety of topics that its think tanks focus on: new trends in international trade, security, Sino-American relations, regional cooperation, and most telling of all, regional studies. All of the think tanks included in the list had significant departments on most of the regions of the world, which suggests that the Chinese government wants to be well informed far beyond its backyard.

Finally, it appears that foreign policy think tanks go beyond regional interests when their own nations have broader aspirations. The Chinese case is clear, but this can also be said for South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. Mexico´s close ties to the United States may explain academic interest in foreign policy affairs; as for Brazil, it is known that it looks to lead Latin America, particularly through UNASUR. Also, it is safe to say that South Africa is one of the most developed countries of Africa, and so researchers can branch out and dedicate themselves to topics that for the most part dominate African think tanks, like economic development.

In future posts we will explore other aspects of this community of think tanks. If you would like to contribute to the list please get in contact with a.moncada56@gmail.com / @Andriu56, comment this blog, or simply update the list directly on Wikipedia (and in the meantime help make knowledge public).

A new political economy of research uptake in Africa: overview

RAPID and Mwananchi have published a series of studies by Emma Broadbent on the political economy of research uptake in Africa.

A bit of background: The Evidence-based Policy in Development Network (ebpdn) was set up to promote our understanding of the role that evidence plays in policy-making in developing countries and in international development policy. Several studies and events have helped to shed light on the factors that explain the uptake of evidence; factors that the Research and Policy in Development Programme synthesised, in 2003: the political context, the nature and presentation of the evidence, links or networks, and the external environment.

However, the ebpdn’s attention shifted in the late 2000s from an effort to understand the complex linkages that exist between research and policy communities to one focused on recording good influencing practices or demonstrating the impact that particular pieces of research had on policy. Research project driven case studies became the rule. This shift, in the view of some, limited the opportunities for learning that RAPID’s original work had offered.

Partly in response to this development, while I was Head of the RAPID programme, we, in partnership with the ebpdn’s Africa network, launched a series of studies that sought to turn this trend around and pay greater attention to the nuances of the relationship between research and policy.

In 2009 a group of Latin American researchers worked on a book published by ODI and International IDEA on the relationships between think tanks and political parties. The studies recognised that it was not possible to study policy research institutes, or think tanks, without understanding their political contexts. The case studies from Colombia (Partidos políticos y think tanks en Colombia), Ecuador (Partidos políticos y think tanks en el Ecuador), Peru (Think tanks y partidos políticos en el Perú: precariedad institucional y redes informales), Bolivia (Partidos políticos y think tanks en Bolivia), and Chile (Los think tanks y su rol en la arena política chilena) illustrated the complexity of the relationship between research and policy, as well as between researchers and policymakers. The idea of two separate research and policy communities was discarded, and the importance of their historical co-evolution highlighted.

A series of background studies for Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East and Southeast Asia followed the Latin American studies; and these were followed by a more recent volume of studies that pays particular attention to the relationship between media and research centres in Latin America, promoted by ebpdn members in the region.

Inspired by this, Emma Broadbent took on the challenge to describe the relationship between think tanks and their environment in Sub-Sarahan Africa. Instead of focusing on an organisation or a piece of research, she took the policy debate as the unit of analysis.

Here, a policy debate is understood as a contested policy issue involving any number of actors who contribute to the debate by offering an argument relating to any aspect of the policy, for instance the policy problem, policy options, means of implementation and monitoring and evaluation. A policy debate can take place in a single space as a one-off event (in which case the number of participants is limited), or can occupy a limitless participatory space over a period of time. This paper is concerned with the latter.

Policy debates are often conducted with reference to political interests and faulty evidence, with each participant in a debate coming to the table with a particular ‘ask’ and understanding of the policy problem. Debates are thus unequal playing fields: they are made up of participants who possess varying objectives, expectations, capacities, understandings, motivations and commitment. Importantly, only some of these may be made explicit, given the potential for some actors not to think and act in a unified manner. For instance, actions may not reflect stated values, or stated intent may not accurately reflect actual intent.

Using research-based evidence as a starting point for a case study also hides the unavoidable fact that evidence does not mean the same to everyone. The label is often attached to a great deal of things: facts, opinions, arguments, and observations. Little is said about the perception that different policy players have of these different types of evidence or their source; even if, as we know and as Emma Broadbent’s studies show, this perception plays a significant role in explaining why certain ideas are more rapidly accepted than others.

Most importantly, the focus on research-into-policy case studies assumes that what matters in policy decisions are the facts and findings emerging from studies rather than the arguments that, by their nature, must draw from a range of sources of knowledge and power: values, tradition, legislation, fears, imaging, etc. Arguments and big ideas are what change the world. Facts and findings simply provide them with ammunition.

The studies discussed here focus on policy debates in four of the countries in which the Mwananchi programme, which provided support for the study, operates:

They offer an opportunity to address concerns about how evidence is used in policy-making. With the debates as a starting point, Broadbent tracked back the origin of the different arguments used by the various parties involved. She considered the different interpretations and sources of the evidence presented and employed by different actors; the roles that local and international policy actors play; and the specific and relative role played by research centres, researchers, and research-based evidence.

As a consequence, the case studies offer us a much richer description of the context, as well as ample opportunities to investigate further the complex relationship between research and policy.

It is worth reviewing the synthesis paper:  Politics of research-based evidence in African policy debates. Its main findings, conclusions and implications include:

  • Surprisingly (?), given the attention to make policy more evidence based, all four cases, specially in the Zambian one, the role of research based evidence in the policy debates was relatively high.
  • However, we should not overestimate the role of research based evidence:

Even when it is used, research is often poorly referenced and seemingly selective; the full implications of research findings are poorly understood; and the logical leap required to move from research cited in relation to a specific policy problem (e.g. HIV/AIDS transmission trends in Uganda) to the policy prescription or solution proposed (e.g. the criminalisation of HIV/AIDS transmission) is often vast. Sometimes, research-based evidence plays almost no role, and arguments on one or more sides of the debate are driven by personal prediction, assumption, reflection on past precedent and commitment to the idea of progress. The case studies each emphasise the role of different types of evidence, particularly that arising from citizens, or the grassroots.

  •  To assess it we should consider three types of factors that explain the role research based evidence plays:

Debate-specific factors, relating to the locus of a debate and the perceived existence of a policy debate;
Discursive and cognitive factors, relating to how policy debates are framed, how research and evidence are understood and research capacity at institutional level; and

Proximate, agency-oriented factors, relating to the political, tactical and strategic factors that intersect with the nature of the debate and the discursive and cognitive aspects of policy debates identified.

  • A key finding of the studies is that greater efforts need to be made to unpack what we understand by ‘evidence’ and recognise that we may not all be talking about the same thing. It may very well be that evidence is readily available but that, in fact, what is lacking is the capacity and incentives to use it. Not using certain evidence can be, in fact, a strategy -entirely logical if one recognises that policy processes are necessarily political:

However, when considering why the role of research-based evidence is smaller, this paper argues that this cannot be explained in terms of a ‘lack’ (of capacity, of research, of funding, of space for dialogue, of ownership) which can be filled (more capacity, more funding, more dialogue, better access to research); rather, it is not being used because there are significant incentives not to use it. Instrumentalisation of lack of capacity—which makes itself known in areas other than research–policy in Africa—thus describes a situation where there are significant advantages to a lack of capacity (assessed – in admittedly ill-defined – terms of the capacity to undertake, understand, and use research-based evidence), and/or significant disadvantages to improving this capacity (again, in this case, measured in terms of research-based evidence). The situation is thus sustained and in fact instrumentalised in order to fulfil a number of varied and interrelated objectives, including resistance to reform, the defence of national identity and autonomy and avoidance of scrutiny.

  •  Finally, the implications and recommendations of the research are relevant for think tanks and their funders (edited quotes):
    • Researchers are supported to promote ‘my’ research, with little acknowledgement of the inevitable political interests, constraints, pressures and incentives research is a product of, nor of its discursive context
    • Indeed, a more fruitful—and significantly more considerable—undertaking would be to turn our attention to improving the quality of policy debates to enhance the ability of people to discuss policy using critical thought.
    • A central part of any effort needs to address levels of understanding relating to research methodologies and the philosophy of science, in order to help users of evidence understand and appreciate the limitations of particular evidence and locate an approach to gathering evidence among wider discussions about what constitutes valid evidence and rigorous research.
    • Approaches to supporting ‘better’ policy debate would also include supporting the role of ‘mediators’ to analyse debates, thereby creating something of linearity in a debate in which evidence gaps can be identified and public demands for research-based evidence made and filled.
    • In some cases, what appears to be a lack of capacity to undertake, use and understand research-based evidence cannot be addressed purely through ‘more’: ‘more’ capacity, ‘more’ research and ‘more’ links between researchers and policymakers.
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