Building sustainable think tanks is a long-run endeavour: the future of ACBF

27 March 2014

[Editor’s note: This is the last post of a series written by Peter da Costa in relation to an African think tanks’ summit held in Pretoria earlier this year. The first post is on the event itself, the second on the broader issue of the role of knowledge, and the third on the functions of think tanks.]

In earlier posts, I mentioned that the ACBF co-organized the Pretoria meeting. It has supported African think tanks for more than two decades, and provides funding to 6 of the current African cohort of the Think Tank Initiative. It is worth ending this series of posts by sharing my notes from welcoming remarks by the ACBF’s incoming Executive Secretary, Dr. Emmanuel Nnadozie, alongside whom I worked at UNECA:

  • An independent evaluation of ACBF support to think tanks has been completed and will be made public once it has been presented to the ACBF Board in late May/early June 2014.
  • [NB: Frannie Léautier, whose presentation at the Pretoria meeting I summarized in my earlier posting, referred to a lot of the evidence from the evaluation, so we at least have a sense of some of the findings].
  • On the basis of the recommendations from the evaluation, ACBF is adjusting its grant-making objectives for think tanks to emphasize 3 elements:
    • Enhance capacity for policy formulation and management, as well as track policy impact;
    • Deepen higher level engagement with senior policy-makers across Africa to create an enabling environment for effective policy engagement and an enhanced update of policy research findings; and
    • Develop and implement resource mobilization and communication strategies as part of all ACBF future grants to ensure that these invaluable entities are financially sustainable.
  • The ACBF business model guiding its new Strategic Medium Term Plan (2013-2016) will emphasize:
    • A specific focus on mature think tanks;
    • Aggressive attention to results for sustainability;
    • promoting inter-think tank collaboration; and
    • Reinforcing organizational, institutional as well as societal capacity to generate and engage with evidence.

Some very important course correction is implied in these remarks – stronger focus on results, deeper engagement with the so-called ‘demand side’, more attention to communication strategies, a special focus on mature think tanks (bearing in mind ACBF’s history of creating new think tanks over the years), and promoting collaboration between think tanks.

A challenging, exciting agenda indeed. The question is whether in these times of scarce resources, with almost obsessive emphasis on impact-now, organisations like the ACBF will be able to mobilise sufficient resources to pursue their mission of investing patiently in African think tanks, for the long haul.

We are learning a lot about what works in terms of supporting think tanks in African contexts, as well as around the world. What is missing is a clear strategy for harnessing what we know and what we are learning into coherent strategies for collaboration that will result in the sum being significantly greater than its parts.