Savior Mwambwa on think tanks in Zambia

29 November 2012
SERIES African Executive Directors 12 items

Over the last couple of years I’ve done some work in Zambia and had the chance to meet a few think tanks there. In fact, earlier this year I tweeted that Zambia was one of the best places to be working on think tanks at the moment. And much of that is down to DFID Zambia’s innovative efforts to support the quality of the political debate. One of these think tanks is the Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD). And much of its success is down to its Director, Savior Mwambwa.

Last month I interviewed him over email. It was a short interview but one that I hope is as interesting for you as it was for me.

Enrique Mendizabal: How would you characterise the Zambian think tank scene?

Savior Mwambwa: I would say, still young and yet to be fully exploited but emerging and exciting. In Zambia today there are still relatively fewer outfits that can strictly speaking be termed as think tanks but as everybody knows these are often times fluid terms and there is a whole range of definitions.

Historically the Zambian think tanks scene has been rooted in either academics institutions such as Universities, or in the faith based non governmental groups working on social justice issues. Over the last 10 years there has been an  increasing interest and focus on the  role of non state actors in the policy arena, specifically in policy influence.

This can be partly explained by the change in the political landscape , i.e the movement from one party politics to multiparty politics and also the role of external donors and institutions in promoting the participation of other actors as a pre-condition for Aid delivery  to African governments. Indeed, in Zambia, like in most economically worse off African poor countries, this manifested itself and reached its height during the periods of the highly indebted poor country (HIPC) status, the jubilee debt movement, and later on during the poverty reduction strategies (PRSP) era.

Aside from the think tank work being done on the side-lines of traditional NGO or academic functions, now we are seeing an emergence of ‘stand alone think tanks’ including policy spaces opening up for the interaction of Zambian think tanks with other actors such as government agencies, donors NGOs and academics.

The  Patriotic Front which was newly elected in Government in September 2011 has a much more stronger  history and tradition of interacting and at times benefitting from NGOs and think tanks work during its 10 years in opposition. Hopefully this will present new opportunities in policy demand, uptake and more importantly influence of Zambian think tanks on the policy landscape presently and in the future. [It should be noted that the Patriotic Fund has promoted the formation of a new think tank: Policy Monitoring and Research Centre.]

EM: As a think tank director what do you feel are your greatest challenges? What keeps you up at night?

SM: Funding! Which leads to worries about staffing, and getting adequate resources to meet the various demands. This is not surprising as most think tanks (in fact all think tanks in Zambia) are externally dependant on others for funding. It’s not just about the levels of funding, it’s about the quality and sustainability aspects of it as well. So things like whether you get Project funding vs Medium term institutional/core funding makes a big difference. Also getting other forms of support like technical assistance to meet the institutional capacity needs could help. But ultimately if one doesn’t have the kind of financial resources that are needed to run an organisation, hire staff and get on with the day to day needs it can be a stressful and distracting undertaking for any Director.

For example, I find myself writing fewer articles or policy papers nowadays as I have to deal with the administrative and programme management  issues  such as reporting to donors, ensuring we have money to pay bills, staff salaries, etc. all of which take time that I should be spending on more strategic things and policy work. I would rather I had more people to be able deal with such issues but  I can’t because I just don’t seem to get the funding for it even if other policy areas of our work are overwhelmed with donors wanting to fund.

EM: You are particularly good at getting hold of the international media to communicate your arguments. You have recently spent some time in the UK talking about tax justice and last year participated in a BBC World debate broadcasted across the world. Do you find it easier to communicate inside or outside of Zambia?

SM: It’s all context specific, but definitely our links with the international media and international partners like think tanks and iNGOs do help with increasing the political profile of our work here and at the international level. As a result of putting the spotlight on some of our flagship undertakings through the international media, we do tend to find that sometimes it helps to turn the heads of some of our local key targets here like civil servants and politicians.

Every time a major story, report, or film highlighting our work or containing key messages of our work breaks in the international media or among the donor communities, we usually experience  an increase in the  number of requests or demands here from our local policy targets requesting one form of input or another. So that helps to create and sustain some political momentum for our policy influence work.

EM: Think tanks in Zambia have received quite a bit of attention from donors recently. What kind of support do you think they need?

SM: I referred to some specific examples of the sort of support that would make a difference to young emerging think tanks like ourselves and others. In a nutshell the following kinds of support is much needed;

  • Reasonably predictable institutional funding for medium term (3 to 4 years minimum)
  • Responsive, demand driven technical support
  • Mentorship and coaching opportunities that link  young upcoming think tanks with much more experienced like minded think tanks all over the world.
  • Strengthening the institutional capacity and sustainability of think tanks to continue to be able to mobilise and generate financial and other kind of resources.