Gilles Yabi from West Africa Citizen Think Tank

30 June 2015
SERIES The future of think tanks in Africa 8 items

Gilles Yabi is the founder of the West Africa Citizen Think Tank (WATHI), which is currently in the process of starting up. An economist by training, he previously worked as regional director for the International Crisis Group and as a journalist for Jeune Afrique. A native of Benin, he lives in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. He is a prolific blogger and who describes himself as “obsessed with the state of Africa and its inhabitants over the next five decades”. WATHI’s website is scheduled to fully launch in September 2015.

Till Bruckner: You’ve worked for one of the world’s most prominent think tanks and you’ve written for the arguably most influential African publication. Isn’t setting up a tiny think tank a step backwards for you?

Gilles Yabi: No, it’s just a different phase in my professional life. It is actually more about citizen engagement and a certain idea of what is important in one’s life than about my career.  I thought there was no reason to wait for retirement age to start something I am excited about and to take risks. I first had the idea when I was a PhD student in France. I wanted to do something useful and original in the region, and a think tank in West Africa can still be original. The concept is new even to many highly educated people here, especially in the Francophone countries. What think tanks exist are largely concentrated in [Anglophone] Ghana and Nigeria.

TB: Why are think tanks less well known in Francophone Africa?

GY: Think tanks are rare here. In the French research tradition, academics usually do not aim to influence policy or do not want to do so openly. However, globalization is beginning to erode these differences in both political and research traditions. More Africans from Francophone countries have been studying in the United States and Canada and gotten exposed to new influences; they want to emulate the models they see over there. Thus, there is a rising interest in think tanks in the region, but it is largely driven by individual initiatives rather than by growing government demand for policy advice.

TB: Where do you see the gaps in the regional policy research landscapes?

GY: There’s been an underinvestment in tertiary education for decades across the continent, but especially in French speaking countries. For example, we’re currently having problems finding interns with masters degrees who can write a motivation letter in French without making three mistakes in the first paragraph. It is not their fault but the consequence of the failures of the education system in most of the countries of the region. Since the mid-1980s, internationally-supported economic and public finance reforms and the financial crisis have severely cut education budgets and remaining funds have been reallocated away from higher education. The problem goes beyond resources, though. There is a lack of strategic direction. National elites can send their own children abroad to get a good university education there, so they have neglected the sector. Changing the status quo would involve making some difficult choices and taking on powerful vested interests, which leaders are reluctant to do.

TB: How do you rate the public sector’s policy formulation capacity in the region?

GY: This varies a lot from country to country, and often within countries from one ministry to the next. Generally speaking, you don’t have structures that favour the development of good policies, so a lot depends on personality. When a good new minister takes over, you can often see significant improvements. Just bringing in two or three good people at the top can make a real difference. Changes may not be very complicated or sophisticated, it’s more about making small changes to get public administrations to basically function, like writing clear job descriptions so everyone knows what their role is. In some ministries, they don’t even have regular brainstorming meetings on real policy issues.

TB: How are policy decisions taken in such contexts?

GY: The very big decisions tend to be taken by the president, who in turn is influenced by his advisers, both official and unofficial. Some of these advisers may have personal interests of their own. Family members, including wives and other relatives, can also be influential. When it comes to smaller decisions that do not involve obvious political or financial risks and opportunities, technical teams within ministries can and do play a role.

TB: How can public policy formulation processes be improved?

GY: To see real change, we need institutional change. In particular, there needs to be a distinction between political and non-political appointees. For example, Ghana has a national commission in charge of overseeing the recruitment process of civil servants, which limits abuses and political appointments. In Francophone countries, too many positions are filled by political appointees and friends of friends of the head of state.

TB: In the United States, thousands of new political appointments are also made whenever a new president takes power…

GY: The U.S. has a large pool of people who can be partisan, competent and aware of the ethical requirements of serving public administration, so it works over there.

TB: And in West Africa, the pool of competent people is just too small?

GY: Human resources in African countries are far stronger today than they used to be, but they are still weak in comparison with the overall population, and given the challenges we face. We need more than that. It is not just about having PhDs and other higher degrees. What we need is larger parts of the population who are competent, or aspire to be competent, in the job they do. The reality is that many young gifted people still go to study abroad, and then they stay and work abroad. We cannot underestimate the effect of globalization on human resources. Highly educated people have more opportunities globally now. Even within their own countries, they can work internationally, for UN agencies or global NGOs such as Crisis Group (laughs). They may work as a minister or in very senior positions, but not below that level, not least because public sector salaries are lower than those paid by international NGOs, not to mention the UN. Incidentally, international organizations are an important factor in the weakening of the states in this region. We need stronger states, but that is impossible to achieve if the best trained and least corrupt people are not interested in working for the state.

TB: So why don’t you yourself go into government, rather than setting up a think tank?

GY: In a ministry, even if you are the minister, you may be able to make some changes but you can’t reform the political and administrative system and culture. Typically, in this region, ministers only stay in office for a year or so, then they get replaced. Those who want to do too many reforms tend to stay even for shorter periods. And anyone can expect to be [the next] minister if they have some kind of relationship with the president. That said, I have never been offered a position of minister, and I don’t think I have the qualities and experience for such a position.

TB: So where does your think tank come into this?

GY: The states and the societies in the region have to change. The systems have to change: political, economic, and educational systems, as well as systems of values. I’m setting up a think tank with a large group of friends and contacts because we need to put some issues on the table, those which we believe are crucial for the future of West Africa in particular. WATHI is not a typical think tank built on in-house experts in specific fields. The goal is to create a participative think tank, one whose objective is not to produce big sophisticated reports but rather to act as a filter for available knowledge that is useful and share it as widely as possible to stimulate debate and reforms. For example, maybe there’s a really relevant study on education in Malaysia out there, on public administration system in Sweden, or on vocational training in Costa Rica. We’d take this information, get the essence of it and make it accessible to a wider audience in French language if it has been only published in English. Access to knowledge in French is limited, and most people here don’t read English.

TB: Where does the ‘participative’ part come in?

GY: A centrepiece of our work will be a ‘Debate of the Month’. We have a lot of debate in this region but much of it is not productive because we tend to ask generic questions, disdain factual information and forget to ask and think about policy options and ways to make changes happen. For example, we discuss higher education without mentioning the inevitable hard choices involved in any possible reform effort given resource limitations. What WATHI will do is invite people from across West Africa to post contributions on the website, sharing facts, observations and suggestions for action. Every type of publication on the website will have its specific goal. For example, a space will allow retired civil servants, managers and others to share their personal experiences with the younger generations rather than just let their experience and knowledge disappear. We want WATHI to be a vehicle for knowledge sharing and collective thinking and action with no hierarchy between the contributors; and without losing sight of the concrete and peculiar challenges of the countries and peoples of the region.

TB: And all of this will take place online?

GY: The web is the media of spontaneity. We want to use it to have a serious debate on a single big topic in the course of a month. We will provide background documents and disentangle the big topic into sub-questions. I don’t know if it’s going to work. If we don’t try, we’ll never know.

TB: Are you also going to try and directly influence policy through reports, briefings, press conferences, and other conventional think tank approaches?

GY: We’re going to influence things by putting issues on the table first and we’ll do that in a way that forces us to think about what to do and how to do it. We do want to work with the media, for example with radio so that what is going on on the website is also discussed in much more popular and accessible media. The aim is to get people to understand that in order to have a fruitful debate, we need knowledge. We will do other activities as well, but really, we are more interested in doing a few things very well than undertaking many actions that others are more equipped to do properly. And the ambition of WATHI is to be a permanent platform for ideas and action for years and decades. There is no reason to rush into many activities and make too much noise.

TB: How will public debates on policy influence actual policy making?

GY: WATHI has no ambition of changing things in a few months or a year. We know a bit about the systems of bad incentives which prevent the countries and the peoples of West Africa and beyond from making quicker progress in improving collective wellbeing. We also know that efforts over a long time are the only way to transform human societies, especially when it is for the good and not to destroy them. We want to get more and more people aware of the crucial issues for their future and for their children so that they will bring in their own ideas for change and put pressure on decision makers. In parallel, we want to draw the decision makers themselves into the debates. We are already building a network of professionals from all walks of life from across the region. We’ll keep on inviting people of good will to join the adventure. WATHI is a state of mind before being an organization. Inclusiveness and open participation are key components of that state of mind.

TB: What is your funding model?

GY: We cannot pretend to work on issues we say are crucial to the region and count primarily on resources from outside the region. Consistency in all dimensions of the initiative seems crucial to me, and that extends to the fundraising strategy. We want to strike a balance between traditional donor support and crowd funding with a particular emphasis on individual contributions from people who are attached to the region. We are starting with financial contributions of the members of the association that we set up, and we have no millionaires in our ranks for now.  So we are starting with quite limited funds and giving priority to building a small but strong team to run the website. We have submitted only one funding proposal to a donor to date. We’ll continue to look for institutional donors but as the citizen and participative think tank we want to be, we are also ready to pay the price for our desire of independence. We don’t have to be very big to do things I think.