[Editor’s note: This is an On Think Tanks interview with the Executive Director of the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research – ZIPAR, Pamela Kabaso, on why impact & influence requires more relevance and how to deal with one of the loneliest jobs in the world – being director of a think tank. It was conducted by Will Paxton, co-Director of Kivu International.]
The Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research has been making waves in Zambia in recent months. At the start of June they published an influential report on government debt and borrowing which led to tangible policy impact and at the end of the month they had a high profile launch of a major new ‘flagship project’ on More and Better Jobs.
Here, Executive Director, Pamela Kabaso, talks about what has led to this impact and how being a think tank director can be a lonely business.
The interview was conducted by Will Paxton, co-Director, along with Guy Lodge, of Kivu International, an organisation which supports local institutions such as think tanks to improve the policy making process in developing countries. Kivu International has been working as part of the Zambian Economic Advocacy Programme (ZEAP) in Zambia for the past eighteen months.
Will Paxton: You have been at ZIPAR for a few years now; how would you describe the main challenges that you have faced in this time?
Pamela Kabaso: Everyone was keen to establish ZIPAR, but the institution’s biggest challenge has been how to create a relevance that was real and practical. I think people thought: “okay, we need something like this, but how exactly?” But no-one was clear exactly what ZIPAR should do. It was up to us to show that we were relevant, to ensure that everyone said “yeah, this is what we have been waiting for”. There was no role model; no Zambian think tank we could copy. We had to navigate unchartered waters and to some extent we have had to trust our instincts – a feminine instinct on my part – which, so far, has worked.
People now feel that Zambia has a think tank worth supporting. You know that you are being highly relevant when even the likes of the governor of the Bank of Zambia, who I met recently, is supporting our cause; when government is coming to you asking for advice and when even the development community recognise the role we are playing.
This increase in our profile has been achieved by choosing to work on issues which matter to policy makers and then combining policy relevant research with good communications. A question I often challenge the researchers with is “what’s the story?” Even if a researcher carried out great analytical work it is useless, and irrelevant, if they cannot explain to people what it means. Our output is now so much better on this front. In the past you could see there was potential, with good analysis, but too often researchers used to waste their opportunity to tell a good story. Today, though, our researchers realise how powerful they can be with the information they have.
Overall, ZIPAR as an institution is now operating at a higher level. People used to look at us more like a project which could be closed down, but now we are more than a project and I don’t think that anyone would want to close ZIPAR down. If we did go quite for a year people would miss us. That means the stakes are high: we need to retain the same high standards we have set in recent months.
WP: Can you give an example of a project which has seen ZIPAR increase its relevance and impact?
PK: Probably the best recent example is a project on government debt, or “Eurobonds”. The report dealt with a salient issue for Zambia: it was one that the Ministry of Finance were already looking into. It was well researched and was very informative, not just raising questions, but also offering potential solutions. The report, which my colleague Shebo Nalishebo led on, made clear what the risks of further borrowing are, but also gave policy options for how to mitigate these risks. In the past government just wanted the money and did not think enough about issues such as repayment, but – in large part as a result of ZIPAR’s work – they will now pay attention and make sure they do not put themselves in the corner. One specific proposal we made, which looks likely to happen, was for money to be put aside in a ‘sinking fund’ which could help repay debt in the future. (The Zambian Ministry of Finance recently issues a pre-budget paper which confirmed that this policy will be enacted.)
As well as being on a salient topic and policy relevant, the report was also very easy to read: it passed my “what’s the story?” test. We have sold out of the paper: 500 copies within a month of launching and people still want more. It was harder for Government to ignore because the argument was clear and well communicated.
WP: How did you balance the use of the media with more “insider” approaches to advocacy on this project?
PK: This is not easy. Zambian society is a bit conservative. ‘Big people’ in particular do not want to be talked to through the media. That is why we basically make sure that the message gets to the influential people first, so they feel that they have been considered. But after this we do then talk to media for the sake of everyone else who you want to bring on board and who are also part of the debate. So it is a delicate balance, but combining the use of the media with an inside track increases the chances that recommendations will be taken up.
There is a broader point here as well: I think we are still building trust and confidence as the culture in Zambia changes slowly. The country is not yet so used to having the kind of evidence that think tanks provide – research that focuses on creating public debate and developing solutions to difficult policy problems. This is different to the kind of data which the Central Statistics Office publishes. It is also different to what civil society does: the relationship between civil society and government always blows hot and cold, with civil society often mainly lobbying for a particular interest, rather than using research and evidence.
In contrast ZIPAR is operating in a different environment where we don’t want to alienate people and we want government to listen. So we need that trust and respect. I think the culture is changing. In fact ZIPAR’s recent success is an important part of this shift and we are increasingly confident that even if ZIPAR has a strong message government will listen to us and respect us.
WP: It is interesting that you see ZIPAR as being part of this wider shift in the nature of public debate in Zambia. How can you best guarantee this for the future?
PK: We do need, however, to continue to strengthen the institution that we have created. ZIPAR must outlive those who pass through here. That is why in the coming year we are actually proposing to change our registration status. We are registered as a “society” which is really limited, especially in providing independence, but as an institution we now plan to register under the Companies Act. This will lock in independence with a legal status as strong as if we are a company. We just want to consolidate the gains we’ve made and then go onto bigger things.
WP: You talked earlier about the need to maintain your recent high standards, but in some ways you are being even more ambitious. You recently launched a “flagship project” on employment issues; can you say a little more about this?
PK: What we are looking at is one of the big challenges that the country is facing: the need for more and better jobs. Because the issue transcends political parties we feel that everyone will want to tap into it. You are right that the project is ambitious: it will run for 18 months and will involve working in partnership with a whole host of other organisations from business to civil society and from Multilateral Institutions to Zambian government ministries. A few things are worth highlighting:
First, we want to add value by bringing coherence to a complicated and big picture issue. Most of the stakeholders are trying to tackle employment issues, but ZIPAR coming on board will provide a platform to create a more consistent and comprehensive approach to what needs to be done. We are trying to bring sanity to a confused and difficult policy area, so that we can develop some concrete polices and strategies so that we start to see some results.
The other thing is that this flagship project is not a process which is owned and being driven from outside Zambia. I have seen so many processes which fizzle out: international people are invited and then they leave and no one left to keep pushing. This is different though. An organisation like ZIPAR can bring the key people together to strategise and develop solutions, but it can also continue and ensure that recommendations made stay on the table for years to come. It is not something which is a once off, but it is something that becomes institutionalised.
WP: Personally speaking what would you say are the biggest challenges you face in your job? Where do you get the support you need?
PK: It is the most lonely job. In the initial days of running the organisation – putting the basic systems in place – I did learn from others. But when it comes to the working of a think tank, it is different. Unless there is another organisation that you can talk to it is just you, alone. You know, for example, that if you mess up the fall will be quite big. Everyone is looking at what you are doing and if you mess up and misstep then everyone will just say how you messed up such a good thing. So you always think about it. You have to take risks and you weigh the risks and the opportunities.
WP: What might be useful in terms of support for you as a leader of a think tank?
PK: If anything here in Zambia I am providing more advice to upcoming think tanks, such as PMRC. We are becoming someone who everyone is looking up to. But when it comes to me personally there is no one to go to. One thing I would say is that any link up with another think tank director is very personal. So even if I knew there was another woman in another think tank I couldn’t necessarily just send an email. It maybe, for example, that there is a generational gap, or the organisations are just too different. I did have a good relationship with the former Executive Director of IPAR-Rwanda, Antonia Mutoro. It felt like we faced the same kinds of challenges and understood each other, but she then moved on.
That is why more often, at the moment, I look internally for support rather than externally; I ask some of my staff and we brainstorm and we say here is the issue. This helps because it gives you back the power to take charge.
PK: The whole ZEAP programme has contributed significantly, but especially to the communications and advocacy side of things – the generation of the outputs there. With other funders it was almost assumed that good communications and advocacy would happen automatically. For instance the ACBF budget was not strong on policy engagement and it was assumed that it would come and happen naturally. But of course it didn’t. It needs additional effort, skills and has cost implications. Just to get your arguments on the table you have to generate something, you have to increasingly get in people’s faces and it just doesn’t happen automatically and it has to be planned for. This is one thing that ZEAP has been very helpful with. The other thing is that the advice and support has come from people who understand how think tanks work – the researchers at ZIPAR listen to the advice and trust it because they know that it is coming from people who have faced similar challenges to them, not someone who has little idea what a successful think tank project looks like.