[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Till Bruckner, independent researcher, advocacy manager for Transparify, and regular contributor to On Think Tanks. This interview forms part of a series of new posts from Africa looking into the future of think tanks.]
With less than four million inhabitants, widespread illiteracy and a long history of authoritarian rule by military strongmen, Francophone Mauritania seems an unlikely breeding ground for think tanks. But when the country in north-western Africa held its first think tank summit earlier this year, seven different organizations were gathered around the table. One of them was Mauritanie Perspectives.
I spoke with Djibéry Doucouré, Mauritanie Perspectives’ chief administrator, and Mohamed Fadel Ball, its project manager, about re-inventing the think tank from scratch.
Till Bruckner: How did you first come up with the idea to found a think tank?
Djibéry Doucouré (DD): In 2010, Mauritania’s national anti-poverty plan had its ten-year anniversary. A group of friends decided to organize a conference on the occasion to take stock of the plan’s performance up to that date. We talked a lot about how the plan had not been much of a success, and how civil society had not been involved in it, and then we thought, “Why not create a group to think about these things?”
TB: What is your institutional structure today?
DD: We are a membership-based organization with 45 members, including academics, researchers, civil servants, some people from the private sector, some university students, some former ministers. Decisions are taken by a smaller steering committee. We have one full-time employee, myself, and one full-time project manager, Mohamed Fadel Ball, and we have our own office space.
TB: What projects are you working on?
DD: We work more onthemes than on projects. Every year, we choose three focal themes, for example this year we chose national unity, youth and education. Take youth as an example. Everyone talks about youth, but there’s no data on what young people actually want, so we run thematic work groups of young people to identify issues and develop suggestions for solutions.
Mohamed Fadel Ball (FB): We have one donor-funded project, which is to follow the implementation of government policies in education and health under the umbrella of the national poverty plan. For example, if the government says it constructed 15 clinics, we will go out and check whether they were actually built, and whether they respected the relevant standards during construction. That project was the suggestion of the Spanish donor, who approached us after a workshop and suggested we set this up as a project.
TB: So how does your work differ from that of a classic NGO?
FB: Our primary objective is not to work on the ground, but to reflect, for example on national unity. Many people are talking about this topic now, so we try to get academics in to talk about international experiences and possible solutions.
TB: How did the national think tank workshop come about?
FB: We found that we still had some weaknesses as an organization and wanted to draw on the experiences of more established think tanks. Our Spanish donor offered to help. We gave them some parameters for the kind of think tank we’d like to link up with, they developed a short list, and we finally chose Elcano, who sent an experienced staff member over here for the workshop. A Tunesian think tank, OMEDRH, also participated in the exchange; we knew them already due to our shared interest in youth-related work. We’re interested in doing more such international exchanges in future.
TB: How do you plan to safeguard your independence from donors?
DD: There are two tendencies within our organization. Some members want to stay independent, while others want to pursue donor funds. It’s a perpetual debate. In my opinion, if we have selected something as a focal theme and then a donor comes and wants to finance work on that theme, fine.
FB: It’s very hard to work without donors. Our membership fee is just 13 Euros per month. We have a treasurer who has a list of all members with their emails and phone numbers, and once a month he emails everyone and asks them to pay their fees into our bank account. This works more or less – some members live abroad or travel a lot – but it’s still not a lot of money.
We have recently been approached by [German donor] GIZ recently and they proposed work that is outside our focus. Personally, I think we also need to orient ourselves towards donors, even if a donor pitches something outside our themes we may want to pursue it to grow… but discussions about this are ongoing. We are not an NGO that works on everything. We want to safeguard quality and originality.
TB: Can you give an example of how donors could limit your intellectual freedom?
FB: Yes, donors are very wary of the national unity discussion, as this is a very sensitive topic. Also, when people see the logo of a donor during a discussion about this, they ask themselves, “Is this not a national topic? Do we really need foreign donor backing to push this debate?” This is a national issue that we need to a sort out nationally.
TB: Domestically, are there limits on what you can discuss?
FB: There is a new generation that is very open and that discusses everything, you can talk about topics that used to be forbidden, like slavery, Islamism, violence, the world is very open now.
DD: In the media, you can now read articles in which people openly criticize the president. In the past, that was not possible. We talk freely.
TB: When you speak with external stakeholders, do they understand what a think tank is?
DD: Some of the educated people already know what a think tank is, to others we need to explain the idea first. For us, it’s about when citizens come together to help their country, we have a certain expertise so we get together to discuss ideas. We don’t pay people for their ideas – they pay us (laughs). Our philosophy is that if we find the solution to just one single problem, we will already have helped the country.
TB: If you have a good idea, how do you promote that with policy makers?
DD: Most of our members work in government in some form, so we have [informal] channels to pass these ideas along on.Then it’s up to them to implement them or not. Also, the government often actively approaches us for advice, we are a privileged partner. In that case, we gather together those members of ours who have relevant expertise and discuss this specific issue.
To give another example, we were just at this regional youth forum where young people from across the region discussed the post-2015 development goals and other issues. Minsters of several countries participated and there was an exchange of ideas behind young people and decision-makers. Mauritanie Perspectives was the first organization to do this kind of thing here; then the Ministry of Youth picked up the concept and organized this regional conference by itself, which isgreat.
TB: How high is the policy formulation capacity within ministries?
FB: Every single ministry now has a small policy research and evaluation unit based on the think tank model, directly reporting to the minister, with one person in charge of it. How well these work in practice varies from one ministry to the next. Generally speaking, it works better in larger ministries with bigger budgets and more staff that get more donor support. They are manned by technical staff who are independent of politics, they are protected, they cannot be exchanged with every change in government. Ministers may not always follow their technical advice, though.
TB: So there is a permanent civil service in Mauritania…?
DD: It’s more institutionalized today, not as tied to the person any more. Governance changed a lot in 2007-2008 [a democratic interlude]. Things improved.
FB: Fifteen years ago, when a new minister came in, everyone in the ministry would change, even the guy who made the tea. That has changed a lot. Mauritania has changed a lot.
TB: What drives these changes?
FB: Mentalities have evolved, civil society has evolved, public opinion is more mature, people ask good questions now. Media freedom and the internet also matter, people can follow what happens in ministries, everyone knows what is going on. Even the president knows!
People are starting to think ahead. Take the example of fisheries, if we take everything now, what will be left over in one or two generations?
Civil society is more vigilant, budgets are transparently managed, ministers are more careful… The president has sent some people to jail for corruption. Government has changed from the top to the bottom. Young people today have a different mentality, they are online, many have travelled, some speak English, they know what is happening in New York, in Paris, in Seattle.
TB: Others have told me that media revelations do not generateany official follow-up…
DD: There’s not much follow-up, but more than before. Another driver of change is that the government is sensitive to international opinion and needs to make a good impression with donors. And I think there’s an emerging patriotism, decision-makers care more about their country. Mauritanians used to identify more with their family or ethnic group, now there is an emerging patriotism.