March 13, 2013


A Zambian think tank start-up: a possible model

This is the second in a series of blog posts on Zambia that I plan to write about this week.

Think tank start-ups follow a number of different paths. Zambia offers a couple of interesting examples of how to and not to do it.

First is the more common path of the traditionally academic and rather heavy (and expensive) think tank. This model appears to be the favourite of funders like the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF). While ACBF can be credited with supporting several successful think tanks in Africa, its model has, in my view, a crucial flaw: it is largely dependent on big budgets.

The Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR) is one of these think tanks. Supported by core funding from ACBF and the Government of Zambia and project funding from DFID and the Danish Embassy, ZIPAR started life very slowly over a period of a few years. During this time, the think tank focused mostly on setting itself up: office, staff, systems, processes, partnerships, etc. but produced little or no outputs.

On paper ZIPAR should be a dynamic and effective think tank. Well (very well) paid staff, close to government, international connections, comfortable office space and even dedicated funds for communications should have delivered much more than the handful of papers it has. It has a huge potential.

The other model is the one followed by the Policy Monitoring and Research Centre (PMRC); Zambia’s newest think tank. Set up by Zambia’s Patriotic Front’s political leadership and very bold DFID short-term core funding, PMRC presents a promising alternative to the traditional ACBF model.

While PMRC is not the cheapest centre (there are cheaper think tanks in Zambia) it has developed a model that could be taken as a good guide for future start-ups and it does offer good value for money.

The organisation started relatively small: an Executive Director, a senior researcher, a senior communications officer, and a junior researcher who played some admin roles.

This small team later grew to include a full-time administrator, a second communications officer, and a small team of interns.

With a small team, however, quite a lot was possible. With only short-term funding promised, PMRC knew it had to get on with the work and make an impact. Its chances of attracting new funds would greatly increase only if they could show ‘value’.  And as a new centre it had to do so by producing new outputs and aggressively engaging with a number of key audiences.

This meant that long research projects, like the ones that other more academic and expensive think tank start-ups tend to go for, were out of the question. PMRC could not afford to disappear for 6 months or more while its researchers were busy ‘doing research’ and its management and communications staff put together guidelines and systems. (When I first met them most of their time was dedicated to putting together plans, developing procurement guidelines, and other important but probably not urgent processes for a brand new think tank.)

To address this, PMRC developed a strategy based on repetition to ensure a relatively short turnover (from idea to publication).

The strategy document we developed only 6 months ago suggested the following linked-up approach in which researchers and communicators would play clearly defined roles –and in which communicators were expected to take the lead once the researchers have moved on to the next piece of work:

 First phase: Setting the scene

  • A Background Note (BN) on the state of employment in Zambia and lessons from the literature and cases on job creation
    • An accompanying Reading List (RL)
    • A Blog Post (BP) to announce the publication of the BN and encourage debate.
    • A Policy Brief (PB) based on the BN that focuses on 3 (although others can be mentioned and found in greater detail in the BN) policy recommendations on job creation directed at government, the private sector, academia, civil society, donors, etc.
      • An accompanying BP to announce the publication of the PB
      • An accompanying set of videos on the BN and the PB (produced by the Communications and Policy Outreach Specialist)
      • An accompanying set of podcasts on the BN and PB (produced by the Communication and Policy Outreach Specialist)
      • A press release (produced by the Communications and Policy Outreach Specialist)
      • An op-ed by the Executive Director in a local newspaper
      • A public event (1 of 4 in a series: #jobsforzambia) accompanied by several outputs (see Communications and Policy Outreach Strategy for detail):
        • An event webpage with all the key documents presented at the event
        • An event video (possibly webstreamed)
        • An event report
        • Videos and interviews with the participants
        • A press release
        • Online debates

This first phase would then be complemented by a more in-depth second one in which a Research Report could be added to the mix; thus offering the organisation a more ‘meatier’ output. But the idea was the same: a big output followed by several other smaller outputs that spun-off from it.

Second phase: a focus on policies and the government’s manifesto (starting with SMEs…)

  • A BN on the state of SMEs in Zambia and lessons from the literature and cases on how to promote the sector.
    • An accompanying BP to announce the publication of the BN
    • A Research Report (RR) reflecting on coincidences between the literature and the manifesto on how to promote the SME sector for job creation and exploring key policy options in greater detail.
      • An accompanying RL
      • An accompanying BP to announce the publication of the RR
      • A PB focusing on policy recommendations to promote the SME sector for job creation in Zambia
        • An accompanying BP
        • A set of Videos on the BN, RR, and PM (produced by the Communication and Policy Outreach Specialist)
        • An accompanying set of podcasts on the BN and PB (produced by the Communication and Policy Outreach Specialist)
        • A press release (produced by the Communication and Policy Outreach Specialist)
        • An op-ed by the Executive Director
        • A public event (2 of 4 in a series: #jobsforzambia) accompanied by several outputs as in the first phase (see Communications and Policy Outreach Strategy for detail).
        • This would then be repeated for up to 2 other key drivers of job creation for Zambia (for example, education and skills, agriculture, employment legislation, etc.).

Assuming that the first phase outputs will take about 2 weeks and that each second phase cycle will take about one month, but giving PMRC a bit of flexibility at the start, the centre will work on this between late July and the end of December 2012.

After a short break [..], the PMRC research team would take on another key policy concern (e.g. energy, transport, etc.) and address it in the same manner.

At the time, and in hindsight, we knew this was a very ambitious strategy; but it was nonetheless worth trying. Practice would help the think tank to develop its own capacities and style in a way that planning could never do. If they tried this, however, they would be able to refine the strategy to fit their own specific circumstances.

In practice, then, the ‘PMRC series’, as they call it, consists of:

  • Background Note, followed by:
  •  One or more Policy Briefs based on the Background Note, and followed by:
    • A Snapshot
    • A Reading list
    • A blog or a series of blogs
    • Videos and podcasts
    • A cartoon
    • An info-graphic

Events are now on the agenda as is a review of its website and blog. The quality, too has evolved. While quality still needs to be addressed it is clear that the ideas are strong, the outputs are good enough, and, most importantly, they are getting better every time a new series is started.

This continuous improvement is possible because PMRC is able to look back at 6 months of continuous production and assess what has worked and what didn’t, identify a style that they can be happy with, review their research and communication processes and developed useful guidelines, etc.

With all this output the organisation has been able to reach out to the media, policymakers, and the private sector with more than just calling cards and promises of future research. Every meeting with policymakers and journalists has been supported by a number of background notes and policy briefs. These have offered ‘talking points’ for the conversation with policymakers; and the cartoons, videos and podcasts have made their way into different media channels.

More importantly, the model is adaptable and replicable by other organisations; and if PMRC has been able to get it off the ground in just a few months then there is no reason why others can’t.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal