How to break through the glass ceiling: supporting a new generation of think tanks and thinktankers

27 July 2015
SERIES The future of think tanks in Africa 8 items

[Editor’s note: This post is part of the series on the future of think tanks in Africa that I prepared after a short research trip to Nairobi. It will be joined by other posts produced by researchers and practitioners in the region.]

The glass ceiling metaphor is often used when referring to women in the workplace. But young people can face a similar challenge. Especially, in societies that are quite hierarchical by nature and where formal signs of competence are given awarded a great deal of significance.

I do not have a PhD. Working in a think tank in the UK (one working on international development) I noticed that not having one was not an issue. It would not stop anyone from becoming a Research Fellow or even an executive director. My boss didn’t have a PhD, nor did most of my colleagues. What mattered was that I could do the work and that I could come up with good ideas -also, that I could win contracts. The policy space in the UK provides ample opportunities for young bright minds (not that I am one of them) to get noticed and be taken seriously. A good idea is a good idea and -even if class, age and ideology can sometimes get in the way of a truly objective judgement- it can trump academic degrees and age any day.

But in think tanks across the developing world, PhDs are given a great deal more importance. In Kenya, one think tank has gone as far as establishing certain rules about the roles that their staff can play depending on whether they have a PhD or a Masters: no PhD? No research! A representative of a funder I talked to also suggested that it would not be appropriate for a young researcher to approach a policymaker. I’ve had similar conversations elsewhere, too.

This is slowly changing; Cheikh Oumar Ba, acknowledges this in his interview on think tanks in Senegal. But the fact remains that in many countries, academic degrees offer a good (and fairly reliable) filter for applicants to work at think tanks.

We could extrapolate and suggest that the same applies for young organisations, without the credentials that years (decades) may offer. Asking for funding often demands presenting a capability statement (a list of past projects) but this is difficult for young organisations to manage. A DFID senior officer recently told me that: “We are happy to take risks when it comes to ideas but not when it comes to management.” So unless you have a proven record working with them in the past you are unlikely to get their support. You need experience to get experience.

This has direct implications for think tanks and consultancies in developing countries that have to seek out UK based organisations to act as the lead contractors in increasingly more projects.

What can they do about it?

As it stands, then, the best chance we have of new organisations to emerge is for researchers to endure an academic career at an older or established think tank until they have amassed enough projects to fill a few pages of a capability statement and then leave to form their own organisation -and take with them their contacts in government and funding agencies. There is a good case in Kenya where former APHRC researchers set up AFIDEP.

I say the best because there are other ways, of course: the Busara Center for Behavioural Economics  offers an alternative based on the leadership role of foreign organisations that lend their credibility and, sometimes, their capability statements back in the US or in Europe to attract new funding.

So what could be done? Here are a few ideas to support the rise of new thinktankers and new think tanks that emerged from conversations in Nairobi in June 2015.

Supporting the emergence of new thinktankers -and of new relationships

International donors are responsible for training new thinktankers, policymakers, entrepreneurs and others every year -even if they seem to renege this form of Aid, it is, possibly, the most effective form. They offer them scholarships and grants to support their studies at home and abroad. But once these graduates are done with their courses they are left to fend for themselves. I received a grant from LSE when I studied an MSc there. And I have friends who were supported by government sponsored grants that involved the condition of returning home. But that was it. No follow-up support.

While I was able to remain and develop a career and a portfolio in the UK, others I met returned home right after their masters and most went straight back to the organisations they had left. Others joined the government and consultancies.

A young researcher, fresh from a masters or PhD, may find him or herself full of new ideas and skills but stuck in a situation in which he or she lacks the CV (or the capability statement) to win any significant bids or grants on their own. As a consequence they either get on with the job of building a reputation in small unrelated projects working for others or eventually get tired and leave for the government, the private sector or an international funder or NGO.

Catherine Kyobutungi, at APHRC, has a great idea to overcome this: funders should offer returning or graduating researchers a year-long grant to support new and original research (which could be on a new issue or using a new research method) to provide them with a crucial first entry into their CV. While this may not guarantee a successful career it can certainly make sure that they do not give up on their ideas nor on the sector in the short term. And these doesn’t have to be expensive at all.

These “transition grants” or “early career grants” (we did not come up with a name for them) can also help open new funding doors for new think tanks and research centres. They can combine individual and organisational support.

Let’s imagine a graduate from a British or an American university received an “early career grant” from DFID or from a Foundation. This grant could open quite a few possibilities.

They could take the grant to a local organisation such as a university research centre or a think tank that hasn’t received funding from them in the past.

This grant could even allow the young researcher to take a job at a university, something that few young professionals are willing to do given the harsh financial prospects they stand to face.

The grant could include research support but also the implementation of activities with the host institution. This would open a channel of communication between the funder and the institution. It would make it posible for both to “get to know each other” and explore opportunities for future direct support.

In conclusion, the grant could offer an opportunity for the research to develop his or her reputation and a track record that may help with future fundraising; and it could, at the same time, make it possible for new organisations to emerge as potential grantees to international funders that are, by nature, risk averse.

Supporting the emergence of new think tanks in unexpected places

Another model suggested by Dr Kyobutungi involves supporting the emergence of new think tanks within universities (for more on the relationship between universities and think tanks red our series on the subject). The model that would normally come to mind is to set up a new research department at a faculty. This can be quite a challenge and complex enough to discourage any funder. But increasingly, we find (and learn about) a different model of think tanks that could work for them, their funders and others.

Funders could support professors at universities to come together to form an independent think tank (the model could be both not-for-profit or for-profit). The association with the university can be loose and based on IDS’ model in the UK meaning that an agreement between both parties would be reached by which the think tank may make use of the university’s offices and services in exchange of producing research and providing teaching services.

This model would allow researchers to remain associated to and continue to teach at the the university while developing new opportunities for themselves: both professionally and financially.

It would also make it possible for funders to bypass what are often impossibly bureaucratic practices that turn them off from supporting them, yet, in a manner that does not undermine the universities themselves.

This model would make it possible to develop new relationships, too. The host universities may learn about new ways of working with foreign funders and improve their own systems and processes to attract their funds directly.

Innovating at low risk

In the end, we need to find low-risk innovations that funders can pursue. Having two or three good think tanks in a country like Kenya -and most countries in Africa- cannot be seen as a good enough thing. Ideas need to be constantly challenged and for this to happen we need high density of organisations, people and publications that promote ongoing debates on them.

Having many small good think tanks is, in my view, better than few large ones.