Observations from a gathering of African Think Tanks: Of visas, rankings and existential threats

24 March 2014

[Editor’s note:  This is the first of 4 posts by our new contributor to On Think Tanks, Peter da Costa, on his observations form a recent gathering of African think tanks in Pretoria, South Africa.]

I was privileged and lucky to have attended a meeting in Pretoria last month on ‘the role of think tanks in transforming Africa’. Privileged because of the erudite participants I rubbed shoulders with. Lucky because I was one of relatively few Africans with the right passport to enable me to enter South Africa without having to wait for up to a week to get a visa.  Alas, a large number of those billed to attend ended up as no-shows, as the interval between receiving official invitations and catching flights was too short. I was relieved that six members of the Africa cohort of the Think Tank Initiative, which I follow as part of my work with the Hewlett Foundation, showed up and participated actively.

Before I go on, I’d like to point out an overwhelmingly valuable aspect of the meeting: it brought a highly diverse group of think tanks together in the same room – spanning economic and social development, conflict, peace and security, governance, and research and advocacy. This hardly ever happens, and was really good to see as many spoke of similar challenges.  The slight downside to having to cater for such a heterodox group is of course that you end up with a slightly generic agenda focusing on the usual questions we think tank students feel like we have grappled with forever. But revisiting these issues at the spectacular African Pride Irene Country Lodge in Pretoria, with unfamiliar faces bringing rich learning to the table, was a small price to pay. 

The meeting was touted as the ‘First African Think Tank Summit’. This billing immediately attracted the ire of some of my fellow students of the world of policy-oriented research – not least because the ‘Summit’ was organized by Jim McGann of the University of Pennsylvania Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), albeit in partnership with the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) and Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

McGann is the man behind the Global Go-To Think Tank Index, the latest edition of which was launched at the end of January 2014. The Index ranks think tanks from around the world according to various categories.  It is quite controversial, methodologically and politically, as many argue it doesn’t make sense to even attempt to rank vastly different policy research institutes from different countries whose day job is to impact on policy and development outcomes within their specific country contexts.

A number of participants questioned the methodology and approach, while others mused as to why their ranking had gone down this year. In response, McGann admitted his methodology was not perfect, but insisted the Index was a tool to be used to grow the field. He explained that his initial intention had been to list think tanks around the world, but that the rankings grew out of a demand from the think tank community.

What’s clear is that while most funders and members of the think tank community of interest don’t use the Index to inform or influence grant-making decisions, and some even pour scorn on it, it is quite visible. Hardly a day goes by without someone raving about being ranked this year. Or, as happened during the Pretoria meeting, a participant losing it because his think tank, packed with first-rate researchers, was ranked well below a populist think tank that does no original research but is adept at getting on TV and radio.

Here’s McGann’s argument about why it’s important for African, Latin American, Asian, Middle Eastern and even European think tanks to stick together:

1. There are a number of trends in the emerging global policy landscape that present a challenge to think tanks, among them:

  • the rapid high-velocity, tech-driven changes in communication;
  • the growth of non-state international actors (TNCs, INGOs, etc.);
  • the increasing complexity of policy issues;
  • increasing interest in open debate about decisions;
  • states no longer having the monopoly on information;
  • economic crisis which had led to political paralysis and ‘in turn to increasing political polarization;
  • states vying with global ‘hacktivists’, anarchists and popular movements;
  • the advent of big data and supercomputers;
  • short-termism; and
  • economic, political and social ‘policy tsunamis’

2. In this rapidly changing world, think tanks face a series of existential threats, including:

  • dramatic shifts in funding patterns;
  • increased specialization (“bred and fed by donors”);
  • increased competition (from consulting firms, law firms and advocacy groups who are doing their own research);
  • impact of the internet, new and social media, and big data; and
  • the tension between research, external relations and marketing.

To turn these existential threats into opportunities, McGann argued that think tanks the world over need to network, share experience, collaborate and get together more regularly. “You recognize you are part of a global community of think tanks. Together, as a region, you have soft power”, he told participants. All of these arguments sound perfectly valid to me.

Nonetheless, and for some, UPenn’s prominence in all this does raise the legitimate question of ‘African ownership’. In the final session of the meeting, Dr. ‘Funmi Olonosakin – a leading War Studies scholar and initiator of the groundbreaking African Leadership Centre – proposed that participants consider setting up a ‘Pan-African Forum of Think Tanks’. I understand a similar sentiment emerged from the last Latin American Think Tanks Summit. ‘Funmi’s rationale was that African research and advocacy groups have a lot they can share and need to find ways to learn from each other, towards producing research that is of consistently high quality, research that can shape the destiny of the continent.

This sounds like a practical outcome of the Pretoria meeting that the ACBF, an African foundation that was instrumental in building many of the think tanks that exist today, should help make happen.