July 20, 2015


The future of think tanks in Africa: Trends to look out for

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of posts on the future of think tanks in Africa that I will write about over the next couple of months. It will be joined by posts from contributors on various aspects of this important issue. If you would like to join the series please get in touch.]

Spending a couple of weeks in Kenya is not enough to develop and share a thorough account of what is going on in the world of think tanks in Africa. But it may be enough to identify, with the intention of starting a discussion about them, a few trends or signs that may frame our discussion on the future of think tanks. As always, feel free to challenge me on the following.

More capable, yet more insecure: the space for debate is shrinking (temporarily?)

The view of some of the people I spoke to is that the government in Kenya is becoming more professional and technical and as a consequence there is greater demand for “evidence-based” advice. On the other hand, most of those I spoke to, also argued that the space for independent voices (even if these are supportive of the government) is shrinking. This apparent contradiction is, in fact, possible to explain.

The State, in general, and the government, in particular, are changing. They are going through a process that combines both investments in its capacity (setting up new institutions, for instance, to oversee a devolution policy) and facing new challenges (security threats, a larger middle class, etc.). Unfortunately, these new institutions, their leaders and employees are not yet sufficiently capable of handling their roles. This is inevitable as they are only just starting to understand and experience their new roles. In this context, understandably -yet unfortunately, they are overzealous in their position as decision makers and do not want others looking over their shoulders.

They do not want to be seen to ‘ask for advice’, either. Instead, they rather co-opt or incorporate researchers, experts and practitioners into their ranks than engage in a public discussions with them. Certainly not when these discussions may involve questions of a political nature.

I have seen this happening in other countries, too. Peru, for instance has seen a rise of what I have, half-jokingly, termed: the hipster government, made up of a new generation of young, well-educated (often abroad), and driven policymakers who lack political awareness and have a limited experience. They use evidence, there is no doubt about it, but only that evidence (and the experts) that they already know about and trust. They are not specialists, either, and are likely to move from ministry to ministry following new charismatic technocrats or Aid money.

Therefore, independent voices, especially on “politics” are discouraged and instead they are told to “talk evidence, not politics [values])”. The extremes of this can be found in Chile in the 70s and in China.

Donors are inevitable companions of this stronger government and have reportedly removed their support from many civil society groups now under pressure from the government. Where, before, international funders may have promoted programmes that worked both with the government and civil society, they are now focusing their attention on government only. In Kenya, the civil society components in a couple of devolution strengthening programmes have been reportedly been removed at the request of the government.

Far from passing judgement, I think this is something that we need to understand. It is not the first time this happens anywhere else in the world. It’s quite expected in fact and I think it is a feature of most governments at the early stages of public policy management professionalisation. Unfortunately, things can also slip into authoritarianism and that ought to be avoided. It appears that Tanzania has passed legislation that bans the use of data not sanctioned by the State. This is one of such cases where insecurity may have gone too far.

In this moment of flux, forms may matter more for those in power –which means both those IN power and those WITH those IN power. The narrative of evidence based policy can be turned into a political tool in this kind of circumstance. It excludes many with a legitimate opinion (even if they have a great idea) from any policy discussion.

Not surprisingly, then, the space may be opening for those working inside the sphere of influence of the government and focusing entirely (or mostly) on questions of a technical nature: how to implement rather than what do to or why do it in the first place.

But the space is closing for those outside of the inner circles of policymaking or for those interested in an open debate on what may or should be the policy agenda and what should be done about it.

Funding is less certain than it seems

I travelled to Kenya thinking that funding was not something that African think tanks ought be worried about. International aid funders are still going strong in their support to Africa -most of it, at least. Other regions, where economic growth has pushed many countries to comfortable middle-income country status, are facing a rapid drop in foreign funding opportunities.

Well, things are not as rosy as I thought they were in Africa. Two important trends were reported.

First, core funding is on its way out. Only a few funders are willing to provide core funding -that the organisation may choose to use for long term programatic and strategic objectives- and even fewer allow for project funding with built-in overhead. Of particular importance is the African Capacity Building Foundation’s sudden funding cuts which have seen many of the largest economic policy think tanks in the continent face significant losses. (Although we should note that ACBF funded think tanks are often linked to governments and have been until now some of the few with core funding; maybe this evens-out the playing field a bit. It will be interesting to note if thee think tanks are supported by the governments. It would be a sign of “impact”.)

Second, foreign funders are also under pressure to tone down their support for civil society: certainly for anyone trying to “influence policy”. This is the inevitable consequence of a stronger government and an empowered society. Just like Americans do not like it when the Norwegians pay think tanks to influence their government, Kenyans are no longer keen on the British or the Canadians doing the same in their country.

Funders of economic and policy research in Africa are mostly international agencies –bilateral, multilateral and foundations. They are increasingly monitored and managed by the stronger and more professional State that does not appreciate them running amok with their own grand plans and foreign-dreamed visions of development.

Funders, that are, by nature, risk averse, seem to be turning even more conservative under these circumstances. Yet, if not them, who will fund and support alternative thinking?

The status quo is being disrupted

I travelled to Kenya also thinking that just as there were young entrepreneurs making the news for their innovation and successes, there had to be young policy entrepreneurs challenging the status quo.

Once again, I picked up two different narratives: one that argues that there is a hierarchy in policy research and that this hierarchy is appropriate to ensure quality (so, it matters who has the good idea); and another that argues that this hierarchy, and authority in general, is being challenged (so, what matters is the idea, not whose idea it is).

For Rob Burnet at Well Told Story, there is no doubt that this disruption has happened already. A good indicator is that newspaper readership in Kenya has dropped from 33% (of people who read a newspaper regularly) in 2007 to 8% in 2015. People are still getting their news. But not from newspapers. If authority is being challenged here I think it is safe to say it is being challenged elsewhere, too.

It was not hard to find new players in the policy research /policy entrepreneurship field who do not know nor appreciate these rules. They are young men and women returning from the US and Europe where they have been working in the private sector, academia or in think tanks, or where they have been studying in environments where the usual hierarchies are treated with respect and flexibility: good ideas are good ideas regardless of who has them.

Expats living in Africa and who feel a sense of public duty for the country where they live and work (and pay taxes) are joining them, too. Together they are leveraging their international and domestic networks to set-up new outfits –which may not look like the idealised think tank but walk and talk like one.

While not a proper trend yet, this means that new alternatives to traditional (or what some consider to be traditional) think tanks are emerging based on:

The challenge that emerges is how to support organisation that do not fit nicely into what funders traditionally consider to be NGOs or think tanks or research centres. I asked a similar question about the Think Tank Fund’s support to for-profit think tanks in Europe. New African think tanks and traditional funders need to address this issue head on.

There is another reason why supporting alternatives to the current hierarchy, one in which ideas are based on their merit, is important -a reason I thought about after participating in a Skype call into a workshop on gender for think tanks in Africa. The hierarchy of authority affects the hierarchy of competence: having a degree is often considered a sign of competence and quality. When think tanks seek-out to promote ideas on the basis of the merits of the person presenting them they are invariably stacking the odds against those without the connections to engineer degree heavy CVs: women, ethic minorities, people from poorer backgrounds, etc. who may not have found it as easy as others to pursue a long-term and costly (personally as well as monetarily) academic career.

Research doesn’t mean academic research any more

When it comes to discussing definitions of concepts the hardest one is “think tanks”, of course, but “research” is up there not too far behind. What does wikipedia say? Quoting from the OECD:

Research comprises “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.”

The keywords, I think, are: creative and systematic. However, in many cases, it is taken to mean something else, something more closely associated with the people undertaking it (who is a researcher and who isn’t?) or the outputs produced (is a blog post the output of research?).

In my interviews I came across a general sense that research, proper research, the kind that funders refer to when they talk about robust or rigorous research and research based evidence, is meant to involve research of the kind produced by someone with a PhD or research that culminates in the production of an academic paper (to be published in an academic journal) or, at the very least, a working paper.

However, things are changing. The research that think tanks are being asked to do has increasingly more to do with the implementation of policy ideas or the analysis of data. This research is expected to be produced in shorter time-frames to support decision-making. This is research that may or may not have an academic paper or working paper in mind when it is being designed: a research report, a background note, a policy brief, or other forms of communication may be far more appropriate.

According to Catherine Kyobutungi, at APHRC, the terms “research” and “researcher” are at a cross-roads. Will they be reserved for those holding a PhD or pursuing academic careers or will they experience a “levelling of the playing field” to incorporate all those undertaking creative and systematic work to increase the stock of knowledge?

When the judges of the Premio PODER to the think tank of the Year in Peru met in 2014 to review the candidates they found themselves with a rather heterogeneous group. Among those claiming to be undertaking research to improve public policy outcomes were university based centres, NGO based think tanks, consultancies, international practitioner NGOs, and policy analysts in government.

As a consequence, the boundary of the label was stretched. As a consequence of the disruption of authority that Kenya and other African countries in undergoing a similar redefinition will be necessary. In my view, it is inevitable. All it takes is for a few non-academic think tanks to start calling their researchers “fellows” or for new media savvy think tanks to take over the public space with good ideas (regardless of their origin). And this is already happening.

Why is this important? It is important because as the label is redefined so are the skills that are expected of researchers. No longer is it sufficient then to have a PhD. If the hierarchy of research authority wants to survive (or compete) it must ensure that it incorporates communication and managerial competencies at the very least.

Think tanks are coming up with new income generation ideas (fundraising sounds to old-style)

With new organisational models and new blood come new ideas for income generation. There are many cases that ought to be explored and supported. Here is a straight forward recommendation: Funders, traditional ones like international foundations and bilateral agencies, should make sure that their grantees do all they can to make some of these efforts work. They would be doing them a great disservice if they didn’t. Some ideas:

  • Paid membership: may not cover much but can provide a good platform from where to develop other more “profitable” initiatives. Also, even if members provide small amounts of money they will engage more with the think tank and in the long-term may become more important supporters.
  • Membership services: for example, IEA Kenya is developing a paid-for newsletter for foreign Embassies in Kenya. A similar service could be offered to corporations.
  • Renting out capacity: the Busara Center has invested in a behavioural insights lab so it can rent it out to third parties interested in undertaking this kind of research.
  • Research consultancy with the private sector: the idea that the private sector is not interested in research is only half-true. They may not be interested in funding research as a public good but they fund research for them all the time. Offering research consultancy services to the public sector can help raise funds to undertake public good type of research -the opportunities for cross subsidy are huge.
  • Brand placement: for instance, Well Told Story has developed a series of media products that reach a wide audience of young men and women in Kenya and Tanzania. They are able to incorporate corporate brands in the stories and messages. This may not be easy to accommodate in think tanks’ current communication outputs but then maybe these should change.

Facing East and South

There is another aspect of the disruption that is worth considering. The world of research has been traditionally influenced by Africa’s relationship with Europe. The US and the Soviet Union (in the past) have played important roles supporting the formation of new generations of graduates in a number of disciplines, too. But increasingly, African think tanks are looking for connections in China, India, Latin America and the rest of Asia.

Think tank funding networks like the Think Tank Initiatives but also projects like ELLA connecting Latin America and African researchers or even The Exchange linking up researchers from three different regions are playing a supporting matchmaking role across the world.

But funders once again stand at an important cross-road. They should, in the view of the conversations I had, encourage new relations to be forged. A recent DFID funded programme to support research communications, ICRED, for instance, should actually encourage south-south partnerships rather than the usual “northern partner sub-contracts African partners” model.

Engaging with the series

These are some ideas that emerged from my conversation with thinktankers in Kenya in late June 2015. The next posts will address some of the recommendations they offered to support and emergence of new think tanks and new thinktankers. Other posts will involve contributions from the thinktankers themselves.

In the series we will include interviews with and advice from thinktankers themselves. Check some of the following (updated on a regular basis):

  • The On Think Tanks Interview: Gilles Yabi from West Africa Citizen Think Tank: Gilles Yabi, founder of West Africa Citizen Think Talk, talks about his personal and professional motivations for setting up this new think tank. The interview also discusses the main problems that countries from Francophone Africa face in formulating effective public policy, and the role think tanks can play in this process.
  • Universities and Think Tanks in Africa: Competing or Complementing?: Collaboration between think tanks and universities is essential to knowledge production. However, certain elements can make this relationship difficult. In this third post from the Think Tanks and Universities series, Darlison Kaija, from PASGR, presents a study on the relationship between think tanks and universities in ten African countries.

If you think there are other issues that could incorporated to this post and to the series, please comment below.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal