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

1 November 2012

“Partnering with think tanks needs to be part and parcel of the Bank’s effort to become a strong knowledge broker.” – Hau Sing Tse, Executive Director of the African Development Bank for Canada, China, South Korea and Kuwait.

The call for stronger partnerships was reported by allAfrica as one of the highlights of the 7th African Economic Conference in Kigali. But what kind of partnerships would work well for the African Development Bank, think tanks, and Africans?

Think tanks seem to agree that genuine partnerships are needed:

Participants expressed the need for genuine partnerships. Held one day prior to the conference opening, the meeting emphasized the overarching need to create a synergy with the leading think tanks in Africa. Participants recognized the role of think tanks for the Bank’s effectiveness on the ground, highlighting the need to strengthen partnerships with them to become a strong knowledge broker.

But to me this sounds less as a partnership and more as a club. Synergy can be seen as code for sub-contracting. And the suggestion that these would only be with the leading think tanks leads me to think of an effort to keep the majority of think tanks out of the conversation.

If the Bank wants to strengthen its capacity and its relationship with think tanks in Africa it should focus on encouraging the development of a fertile context for them to the grow. This does not come through ‘picking favourites’ but a set of far more interesting actions that are, as it happens, within the Bank’s mandate. Some ideas:

  • Do or commission some research and lobby for policies that encourage domestic philanthropy across Africa to ensure that all new research is domestically funded;
  • Invest in tertiary education (or encourage governments to invest in tertiary education) to ensure that think tanks have a steady supply of excellent researchers within their reach. This will also help to increase the number of think tanks, keep their budgets relatively low, and also encourage the development of new professional networks that will facilitate the flow of information between researchers, policymakers, the private sector, civil society, etc;
  • Set up or encourage national governments to set up national level research council or funds: governed by independent boards and co-funded by the Bank, the national government and the private sector (I’d keep donors out of it but they could be used in the beginning). These funds would provide short to long term funding to researchers in academia or think tanks to undertake work on key policy issues decided locally and not by foreign international development agendas and interests (there is a good example of this in Peru at the Consorcio de Investigación Económica y Social);
  • Avoid attempting to control the flow of ideas in the Bank’s efforts to become a knowledge broker. If experts in the field of web development are to be believed control is likely to be increasingly difficult as people engage more and more with online and digital tools. What the Bank needs to do instead is develop sound strategies to actively engage and participate in the new knowledge spaces that are developing across the continent and the rest of the world. Being there will ensure that they are, maybe not brokers, but certainly important players in a larger and better conversation; and
  • Why not take a page from the Inter-American Development Bank that frequently ‘poaches’ researchers from think tanks in the region thus creating incentives for bright young minds to work for think tanks at relatively low salaries?