Spanish and African think tanks: thinking about Africa

23 March 2016

[Editor’s note: This article, based on a presentation by Ricardo López-Aranda at Casa África in November 2015, illustrates two important points. First, the range of organisations, including think tanks, that study Africa in Spain. Second, it presents evidence that the Spanish Government pays attention to what think tanks have to say in order to inform its own thinking. Ana Iborra provided support in putting together the presentation.]

The first convention of African-Spanish think tanks took place on the 5th and 6th of November of 2015. It was organised by Casa África in their headquarters located in Las Palmas, on the island of Gran Canaria. The meeting brought together representatives of think tanks from Africa, Spain, and the rest of Europe. +

In view of this event, the Policy Planning Office (OAP) of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (MAEC) has carried out an inventory on how sub-Saharan Africa is perceived by Spanish think tanks and what their relationship to African think tanks is.+

The OAP itself operates as an internal think tank within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it is the focal point in the relationship between the ministry and national and international research centres.

The relationship between Spain and sub-Saharan Africa

The starting point of this analysis should be the evaluation of the bridging entity or entities between Spain and sub-Saharan Africa, and the priority that our external politics give to the continent.

For the purpose of this article, I will not expand on the matter, but rather illustrate the importance of relationships with Africa for Spain through an overall description of the diplomatic, security, development and economic fields.

In the diplomatic field, bilaterally, Spain has embassies in the majority of states in sub-Saharan Africa. Multilaterally, Spain actively supports the work of the African Union, as well as the work of regional organisations such as the ECOWAS in West Africa and the G-5 in the Sahel. This commitment is recognised throughout the region. Evidence of this recognition is the fact that the majority of African states elected Spain for a seat in the United Nations’ Security Council as a non-permanent member for the 2015-2016 term. For its part, Spain renewed its commitment with African interests, also in its work in the Council.

It is also worth emphasizing Spain’s role promoting the relationship between the European Union and Africa. To name a few examples, we have promoted the approval of the European Strategies for the Sahel and for the Gulf of Guinea. We have also advocated for the strengthening of the strategic partnership of the EU and Africa in the framework of the EU-Africa Summits.

In the security field, at the request of affected countries and with the backing of the United Nations, Spain currently participates in international missions present seven African countries. Our country’s intention is to help both actively and constructively, under the principle that we support of “African solutions for African problems.”

Cooperation for development had been the main vehicle of the Spanish presence in Africa. In the last decade, Spain has contributed to African development with more than EUR 7,900 million in Official Development Assistance (ODA), of which EUR 6,300 million have been directed to sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the economic crisis, these numbers have diminished in the last few years, but Spain is committed to return to the previous numbers as soon as possible.

If, traditionally, cooperation for development was seen as the main tool to help countries out of poverty, we are now at a new stage in our relations with Africa, in which the participation of the private sector, trade, and foreign investment are considered by African countries as appropriate tools to achieve growth and development. Spain shares that view: our trade with Africa has multiplied by 2.5 in the last decade, currently surpassing our trade with Latin America.

Summing up, the relationship between Spain and Africa is undoubtedly intense and profound in the fields of politics, security, economics and cooperation.

We will now see whether the relationship in the fields of analysis, intellectual activity and think tanks follow suit.

The analysis on Africa in Spain

From the start, it is important to mark a difference between Spanish “generalist” think tanks and those focused on specific themes. The first group typically follows and analyses the international landscape as a whole. The second group focuses on specific topics, for instance conflict studies or peace processes. Both kinds of analyses are typically carried out by think tanks, but in this study we will also touch upon perspectives from universities, religious groups and the business sector. These groups are also interested in understanding the African reality from a Spanish perspective.

Generalist think tanks

In this field we must recognise that the interest in analysis lags behind the rest of our existing relations. As things stand Sub-Saharan Africa does not appear to be a priority in the work programmes of the main generalist research centres in Spain.

  • The Real Instituto Elcano offers an important and varied range of studies on the Middle East and North Africa, but not a lot on Sub-Saharan Africa. They have recently published a report on “Spain looking South: from the Mediterranean to the Sahel” which studies the risks and opportunities for Spain in the region and offers information on the new geo-economic role of Africa. The institute intends to strengthen their capacity to analyse Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The Centro de Estudios y Documentación Internacionales de Barcelona (CIBOD) is focusing its attention on sub-Saharan Africa through the programme Atlantic Future, which analyses the relationship of the continent with the EU and the Americas. In 2009, the CIBOD published what is possibly still the main article of reference regarding African studies in Spain.+ It has also published studies on insecurity in the Sahel, and most recently specific studies on the Ebola virus as an obstacle for sustained growth of many African economies.
  • The Observatorio de Política Exterior of Fundación Alternativas includes sub-Saharan Africa in its areas of research, and the publication of documents and reports was particularly important in the period between 2006 and 2012. However, in the last few years there seems to be a lack of studies and publications on the region.
  • The Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE) has focused its recent studies on specific aspects of the African reality. It addresses the fragile and porous borders of the states of the Sahel, as well as the high-rates of gender inequality that are experienced in these countries. Unfortunately FRIDE has had to suspend its operations from January 2016 due to financial difficulties.

Think tanks focusing on specific areas


In the field of security, a number of think tanks merit attention:

  • The Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (IEEE), an organisation attached to the Spanish Ministry of Defense’s Centro Superior de Estudios de la Defensa Nacional (CESEDEN), has studied a series of rising threats in the region, like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the permeability of its frontiers, and the traffic of humans, drugs and weapons towards Europe and to other African countries. It has also studied the Ebola crisis, focusing on how it affected the economy of West African countries, how it evolved from a health crisis into an international security crisis, and the role of the military in the response to the outbreak.
  • From the perspective of conflict studies, the Instituto de Estudios sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria (IECAH) has organized cycles of debate at La Casa Encendida. These have had as their main focus the situation of South Sudan, Western Sahara, the Central African Republic and the plight of female Congolese survivors of sexual violence. The IECAH has dedicated a few of their publications to current events in the African continent, addressing issues such as forgotten patients in West Africa, the Ebola outbreak, and the expansion of the Jihadist threat, particularly Boko Haram. It also has an educational outlet, from which it has organized courses like “Women, violence, armed conflict and peace building.”
  • The Escola de Cultura de Pau, headquartered in Barcelona, through its Programa de Conflictos y Construcción de Paz, is following and analysing current situations of conflict in various continents, including Africa. Their objective is to disseminate and form an in-depth analysis on international conflicts and peace building. They also publish Alerta!, a report on conflict, human rights and peacebuilding, and the Barómetro de Tensiones, an index in which the most pressing issues of conflicts are highlighted.

Humanitarian Perspective

It is important to also mention the research and dissemination work done by NGOs working on development and not just focus on organisations we associate with the think tank label.

  • Since 2007, África Directo edits a magazine about problems in the African continent.
  • The Fundación Habitáfrica publishes documents on economic and social development, education for development and the environment of the African continent.
  • Within the major NGOs dedicated to development and humanitarian work, the publications of Doctors Without Borders stand out.
  • Also worth mentioning is the analytical work of Intermón Oxfam on rural Africa, the food crises in the horn of Africa, the international influx of arms into Africa, and the delayed response to African conflicts.
  • Cáritas has also published various studies related to the African continent, focusing on the area of the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa.

Religious orders

There is a considerable amount of Spanish religious orders present in Africa who are undertaking studies related to the continent. The majority of them belong to the Red Africa-Europa, Fe y Justicia. Their work focuses on how the EU’s economic problems are affecting the African population, and the organisation tries to bring the concerns of its members into the European political debate.

Amongst the congregations and associations that make up this network are Misioneros de África, also known as Padres Blancos. They edit the magazine Africana, which includes a complete report on a country or an African theme in each of its issues, as well as testimonials about their experiences. This network also includes UMOYA, a group of people that have been sensitized on the trying situations experienced in some African villages. Through their webpage, they publish a bulletin with in-depth analysis called Boletín A Fondo, along with a quarterly magazine called Revista UMOYA, where they curate information, testimonies and news on Africa produced by people that are in the continent.

This editorial and disseminating work is also undertaken by other groups, like the Xaverian Missionaries or the Comboni Missionaries, who have created Mundo Negro Digital, an online communications platform that offers information on daily events in Africa. They also have other editorial activities, which support their work on disseminating missionary materials.

Finally, we have to mention the work on dissemination undertaken by the Fundación Sur, in whose patronage lie Cáritas, United Hands Missionaries of Africa. Fundación Sur, through their web portal, intends to sensitize Spanish society on African problems.


Gender studies are integrated in many of the analytical activities on Africa, as we have seen with FRIDE and IECAH.

  • Fundación de Mujeres por Africa is an organisation “committed to sustainable economic and social development, human rights, peace, justice, and the dignity of people,” especially of women and girls in the African continent. However, their work is focused on cooperation and organisation of conferences, rather than the publication of analysis.

Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea is worth singling out because it is the only African country where Spanish is the official language according to its constitution.

  • The National University of Equatorial Guinea (UNGE), maintains cooperating relationships with the Universidad de Alcalá, in Spain, with the goal of becoming an institution specialised in Spanish language and culture and serve as a focus for the diffusion of Spanish as a foreign language in Africa.

There are several Spanish think tanks that have done research on Equatorial Guinea, particularly on Spain’s external politics in relation to the country in the 2000’s.

The role of the Canary Islands

The Canary Islands have a special stake in the relations with the continent due to their geographical position off the coasts of Africa:

  • The Centro Atlántico de Pensamiento Estratégico (CATPE) maintains their focus on the Canarian archipelago as a strategically important territory in terms of trilateral relations between Latin America, West Africa and Europe. It has within its objectives that the Economic and Fiscal Regime of the Canary Islands (Régimen Económico y Fiscal de Canarias) becomes a strategic tool to increase air and sea connections with West Africa, and with that improve Canarian companies´ presence in the West Africa.

Research Centres at Universities

Spanish Universities offer a rich ground for research and analysis about Africa.

Outstanding in the field of research and analysis are the Grupo de Estudios Africanos (GEA) of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the Centro d’Éstudis Africans i Interculturals (CEA) of the Universidad de Barcelona. Both are members of the European network of think tanks on África (AEGIS). AEGIS was created with the intention of sharing resources and investigation topics between think tanks focusing on Africa in the European Union.

However, there are not many post-graduate degrees focused on Africa in Spanish universities. Other than the ones mentioned above, there are master’s degrees offered by the Instituto Universitario de Desarrollo y Cooperación of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the Centro de Estudios Africanos of the Universidad de La Laguna, and the interdisciplinary programme at the  University de las Palmas.

It is interesting to highlight the role of these centres in disseminating information, as they often have independent publications. For instance, the network Narrating Africa in Spanish, of the Biblioteca Africana of the Universidad de Alicante, aims to create a digital database that gathers educational tools for teachers or professionals who want to integrate African topics in a multicultural educational context.

UNESCO has promoted the creation of chairs in Spanish universities that have a focus on the African continent, particularly on its technological development in terms of communication and information. Two successful examples of this are the chairs of Investigation on Communication and Africa from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and the UNITWIN-UNESCO on Information Technology for the Northwest Region in Africa from the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria.

Collaboration between centres

The collaboration between universities constitutes an important element in the collaborative activities of these centres.

  • Of particular relevance in terms of inter-university collaboration is the Agrupament Recerca I Docència d’África (ARDA). This thematic network was created by the Universidad de Barcelona and is composed of the CEA, the GEA and the Instituto Hegoa of the University of the Basque Country. Their objective is to promote university investigation through different research projects focused on sub-Saharan Africa.
  • It is also important to mention the work of The Africa Initiative from the IESE Business School of the Universidad de Navarra. This project contributes to the formation of African teachers, and it collaborates with businesses that are already present in Africa and those that are considering the inclusion of the African continent in their business strategies.
  • The role of ESADEgeo is also interesting. This organisation describes itself as a meeting point for experts in the business, government, academia, and think tank fields. It aims to reach out to experts in these areas from all over the world, with the goal of creating strategies in a globalised world. Thanks to this collaboration, it has been possible to set up training programmes both locally and abroad. An example of this is the programme developed by IECAH, aimed at humanitarian agencies with the intention of improving the quality of humanitarian aid. It was implemented in four African countries: Cameroon, Morocco, Mozambique and Niger.

Overall Universities carry out work on Africa in a more consistent way over time, whereas “generalist” think tanks tend to react to mediatic events, but University has also has less impact in Spanish civil society as a whole. More could be done in disseminating its activities, in particular through online channels.

Casa África

The use of new technologies for the dissemination of research is precisely one of the strengths of Casa África. Casa África is a public diplomacy organisation whose participants include the Spanish state, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, and local and autonomous administrations. The work of the organisation is intended to promote the understanding and trust between Spain and Africa, as well as to strengthen the relationship between the two through informational, educational and cultural activities. In terms of economic diplomacy, it advertises opportunities offered by the African continent for Spanish professionals, businesses and investors.

Regarding culture and education, Casa África has organised a variety of events and projects that promote the establishment of contact points between initiatives in both continents. Through Conoce África, Casa África contributes to the dissemination of teaching materials and news about Africa in both major media and alternative communication platforms. This informational task is carried out through its media library, a documentary centre specialised on African themes, and through their own publications where they give visibility to African writers and Africa specialists. They also translate into Spanish the most relevant works in African literature as well as articles from African think tanks and European think tanks on Africa.

Other centres

I should mention, too, the following:

  • The Asociación Española de Africanistas (AEA), a Spanish scientific organisation that aims to promote the study of Africa and African societies, highlighting the importance of African villages and cultures. It also works to promote collaboration with institutions specialising on African themes and cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa. The AEA has been active for more than thirty years, and has developed its activities through university courses, conferences and through their editorial role in the publication Revista de Estudios Africanos.
  • The Instituto Catalunya África was formed in 2007 by civil society members (businessmen, cultural experts, artists, academics, etc.). It has as its goals the promotion of agreements between European and African universities and the fulfilment of studies and publications that aid in understanding the history and current state of African villages and cultures. It also promotes African culture (art, music, fashion) in Spain, and in particular in Catalonia, and promotes Spanish artists who have completed part of their work in an African country.

Research centres in businesses

Regarding the role of the Spanish businesses sector in terms of analysis on Africa, the collaboration of Iberdrola to the Chair for the Universalisation of Basic Energy Services at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid stands out. Through this collaboration, they maintain a relationship to develop training and dissemination activities.

When it comes to the big banks, the Fundación Banco Santander, through their periodic publication Moneda y Crédito, has published information on the African continent, such as their article on brain drain highlighting the case of Cape Verde. It has also written on changes and financial development of emerging economies. The Fundación BBVA also mentions Africa in some of its publications, focusing on unpaid work in the continent.

The views from our embassies

Spanish embassies accredited in African countries, along with our representation in international organisations, such as the African Union, have the double task of monitoring the activity of local think tanks and promoting and supporting the presence of Spanish think tanks.

As far as the first task is concerned, their work is faced with the fact that in a number African countries there are not so many organisations that could be classified as think tanks. The Global Go To Think Tank Report from 2015 identifies only 615 think tanks in all of sub-Saharan Africa. According to the report, the three countries that hold the majority of think tanks in the region are South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

The majority of the organisations in the region have a local or regional focus. Their purpose is to serve as centres for debate or analysis on development in the African continent from different perspectives: economic, social, political, technological or environmental. These analyses intend to generate concrete actions for policy development. The work on issues that go beyond the local or African field, for instance European issues, is thus limited.

Perhaps because of this the exchange with similar Spanish organisations is somewhat limited and there are few articles published specifically about our country (more on the implications of EU policies and situation). Nevertheless, there are some organisations that exemplify how relations between Spanish and African think tanks are growing.  For instance, the Centre of Strategic Studies in Angola was created emulating the Centro Superior de Estudios de Defensa Nacional (CESEDEN), the Institute of International Relations in Cameroon maintains relationships facilitated by our embassy with the diplomatic school of the MAEC, and the Institute for Economic Affairs in Ghana has contacted Casa África in the past.

There is more financial leeway to support this cooperation in countries that are a priority for the Spanish development cooperation. Spain supports Mauritanie Perspectives  in the operation of the Observatorio, a system of national surveillance existing in the strategic framework to combat poverty. In Mozambique, a line to support local analysis centres has been incorporated into the new bilateral cooperation agreement, Marco de Asociación País. Finally, there is an existing collaboration with the Centre for Social Studies Aquino de Bragança which aims at strengthening the judicial sector.

Another way of collaboration is the existing support, along with other stakeholders, of local studies, such as the one focused on the living conditions of the San population in Namibia. It is also important to mention the triangular cooperation between the AECID, the African Union and the Institute for Security Studies, for the training of African attorneys through the Association of African Attorneys.

Final considerations

There are several conclusions that can be reached on the work of Spanish think tanks on Africa and the work of African think tanks in general.

Firstly, there is a rise in the number of think tanks in both continents, most recently in Africa, where these organisations have gained more influence on policy debates and formulation. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, think tanks are essential in showing the world the dynamics and processes of civil society in Africa and moving past existing stereotypes. Unfortunately, in some countries think tanks are vulnerable to the influence of the international organisations that fund their studies, or of their governments. In the world of think tanks independence is always a challenge.

Secondly, in a moment where we witness the emergence of a more participatory citizenship in many African countries, a better knowledge of their realities and diversified sources of information and analyses are essential. To achieve this, it is vital to disseminate the information from African think tanks to the average citizen through media and online platforms, but non-African think tanks, with their different perspective, can also play a relevant role.

Thirdly, cooperation between African and non-African think tanks can be mutually enriching, opening the way to new points of view and helping disseminating each other’s analyses. The meeting between African, Spanish and other European think tanks organised by Casa África in November of 2015 is an excellent tool to achieve this. Casa África deserves to be commended for this initiative, and for its intention to ensure its continuity.