The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is the leading think tank on human conflict and security crises on the continent. It’s first francophone regional office in Dakar opened its doors in 2010 and now consists of more than 40 consultants and 15 permanent staff working across multiple issues. Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a spoke with ISS-Dakar’s founding director, Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni.
Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a: What are the major concerns of an African think tank director today?
Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni: Think tanks are only relevant if the data we generate is used by stakeholders and leads to impact. We spend a lot of time spent going through the impact value chain of our work.
Secondly, ISS like every think tank has funding gaps to bridge. When ISS-Dakar was set up, the world was going through the financial crises. The board and trustees therefore agreed to operate purely on project funds, with no core support. If they had given us core funding at the start, I would happily have taken it. Juggling both research and fundraising was frustrating but it forced upon us a certain state of mind. It made sure that we hired researchers who also have the strategic vision to identify projects, provide visibility and attract additional funds. Our researchers became talented fundraisers and this model is now being implemented in our other offices. ISS’s financing model uses core funding as seed funding, which allows us to create a careful balance between long-term concerns and more immediate needs. However, if the core funder decides not to fund us, we are not closing shop.
RN: What has been the biggest achievement for ISS-Dakar?
LATB: Our role in reframing the narrative around violent extremism and young radicals is significant. Beginning in 2015, our team of 20 researchers went across Mali, talking to people about why they got involved with these extremist groups and the conditions under which they stayed. It was interesting to find that in most cases, participation in the extremist groups was not a result of religion; but rather most people stayed in order to protect themselves, their communities, families or even income. It called into question the narratives on religion radicalizing youth and has started useful discussion on how to tackle the real needs. We have gone on to carry out additional research to better understand the issues and provide analysis.
Secondly, in French speaking Africa, there is still a lot of communication on what a think tank is, how it works and why the government can find it useful. Our team creates multiple types of communication strategies for different channels. We’ve learned that we can invite the right people and ensure that the data lands on the right desk but even if they do decide to pick up the paper and read it, we may still not have full impact. We are doing well but there is always room for improvement. More and more, we are declining research projects without support for this active communication and dissemination phase.
RN: What are the current trends, main challenges and prospects for think tanks in francophone Africa?
LATB: It’s an exciting and challenging time for think tanks. We are seeing the presence of not just professional but also citizen-led think tanks in West Africa, which shows the need for more strategically oriented thinking about the challenges that the region faces. There is increased understanding that the state alone cannot provide answers to all issues. Though, there is still resistance in some French speaking states who see independent think tanks as contesting the space that should be occupied by state organizations. This thinking is slowly disappearing, as more and more people understand that independent thinking can critically contribute to defining issues and coming up with prospects for change. We now have examples of both donors and state institutions coming to ISS-Dakar for support. This is the sign of an evolution.
RN: Any wisdom to offer to a donor looking into funding think tanks?
LATB: Donors often come to an issue with their own analysis which can be incorrect or correct but out of context. To change this, terms of reference need to be open to substantive changes in the way the project is conceived, otherwise the donors create conditions for the research to be for their own knowledge. For example, violent extremism in Europe functions differently from the Sahel and a donor must enter the region with room for adjustment. In the projects with the best outcomes, ISS-Dakar has co-constructed the project proposal with the donor. We tend not to apply for calls without room for knowledge construction and real learning.
RN: Any wisdom to offer to policymakers wanting to engage think tanks?
LATB: With policy stakeholders, we take a collaborative tone and say something like, don’t be afraid. We are here to help you make more informed decisions. We have much more in common than we think. We all live in the same world even if we are civil society. If you make the right decision, all our lives improve. How can you navigate the world where not all the information is equal? Quality and objectivity is paramount if you want to ensure that your decisions can be contested from a methodological perspective.
In addition, the way projects are constructed is super important. ISS-Dakar always follows a consultative process. Most projects start with key stakeholders to ensure that the research question is a real question out there. Often it is the way to assess what is known, what is not known and what more people need to know. The people involved in the consultative process become key stakeholders throughout the research because they framed questions and expressed a policy need in the policy. People pay more attention to the data when they feel that they played even a small role. Be more inclusive when defining.
RN: What initiatives have been helpful to ISS-Dakar’s growth?
LATB: The key to the advancement and performance of this office has been our human resources; our team is young and from the region. Sometimes it is difficult to find people with the right set of skills to occupy key research positions. We’ve undertaken fellowships for young Francophone West African researchers interested in human security and have trained 25 people in 5 years. Now these former junior fellows make up 80% of our research team while others have gone on to work for civil society, government, AU/UN etc. This is the advantage of training local people rather than bringing in human resources from outside the continent who might have issue knowledge but will not allow the think tank to develop a network and impact strategy.
RN: Is there good reason to bring African think tanks together?
LATB: As long as it’s not just a discussion on the problem of funding but rather how we can build the future of think tanks. There is a lot to share and it is important that we do come together and cross pollinate ideas on what has worked at a practical level in human resources, innovation, stakeholder engagement etc.
RN: What are some of the best qualities and special gifts that you bring to ISS Dakar?
LATB: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to identity talent and maximize potential and worked hard to create an environment that makes policy research work. Before being a director, I am a researcher and continue to be involved in some of the research projects. I therefore manage from a perspective of someone who values research.
I’ve also worked to make us a proactive team. This means we put a lot of effort into questioning and reframing what really works. What could have been failures turned into successes. We’ve also been lucky to have donors that understand why a project may need to be re-conceptualized. It takes humility to understand that our own idea was not as good as it could be when we first conceptualized it. However, we now realize that if we had not gone through our regular process of asking – is it working, how is it working, why isn’t working – we may not have arrived at the good result.