[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Will Paxton at Kivu International who is working on a project to support think tanks in Zambia: Zambia Economic Policy Advocacy Programme (ZEAP).]
In 2014, Lusaka based think tank the Zambia Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR) started a project on government debt. There are few more emotive issues in Zambia, which has a history of sovereign debt crises. By the time the Zambian Minister of Finance delivered his budget last month, ZIPAR’s work had proved influential. In particular, their recommendation that a ‘sinking fund’ be established to help repay debt was adopted. Here ZIPAR’s lead researcher on the project, Shebo Nalishebo, tells Kivu International’s Will Paxton how the project achieved such policy influence and draws out some potential lessons for think tankers around the world.
Kivu International: Your recently completed project on government debt in Zambia achieved some notable policy impact, particularly on this idea of a sinking fund. What do you put this success down to?
Shebo Nalishebo: Well, when we decided to carry out this study, government had just then embraced the new kind of borrowing – through ‘Eurobonds’ on the international market. They did not have much prior experience of managing such borrowing, so when I had a chat with a senior official in the Ministry of Finance he mentioned that they’d want to know how other countries were managing their sovereign debt, and their Eurobonds specifically.
So we directly responded to government’s demands. We clearly set out what the risks were in the event of default and the options for managing and repaying debt. Remember when we started the work Zambia, already had two Eurobonds, but no-one was talking about how the money was going to be paid back. We brought out a very compelling story about what government should do and what the risk were if government didn’t do it. I guess that is why they bought into the recommendation about the sinking fund.
KI: You mentioned looking around the world. How did you go about looking at other experiences?
SN: We looked at a number of countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Ghana and even some from further afield like Venezuela, Jamaica and Greece. Ghana had recently signed up for a sinking fund and we spent quite a bit of time doing a literature review of that. The information was scanty; it is not the kind of thing that many countries are doing any more because most countries are into other debt instruments. But for us the sinking fund was going to be the main option because we have very little experience with the more complicated instruments. Our policy thinking was informed by experiences in other countries, particularly Ghana.
KI: Thinking about how you made policy recommendations, any other insights into how you developed policy proposals?
SN: I think it was largely because we talked to people in the Ministry of Finance a lot. They shaped our thinking. Some our recommendations came from ideas which the Ministry of Finance were already interested in. Our task was to put meat on the bones. Even for the sinking fund they were already thinking about it, but there were two camps: one for it and one against. When we made a presentation to the Ministry the aim was to ensure that even those who were opposed to the SF would buy into it. So, yes, that very close understanding of the politics inside the Ministry was important. We were also open to ideas. We interviewed a lot of people who informed our thinking. They gave us ideas and told us when we were off the mark. And then based on this we went to the international experience and looked at what was obtaining in other countries.
KI: How did you combine your close relationship with government with your media work?
SN: Well, this is thanks to the Executive Director Dr. Pamela Kabaso and Euphrasia Mapulanga – ZIPAR’s communications person. The key thing which the Executive Director emphasises is that you do not have to wait until the end of the project to be able to disseminate and communicate it – that is where Euphrasia comes in. After we had just conducted a desk review we put it out there that we were working on the issue. We had our first breakfast meeting with stakeholders and they were able to tell us some of the angles we could take. The media breakfast was aired live on one of Lusaka’s leading and most listened to radio stations. And we also placed articles in the media. This means that people who were not at our breakfast meeting heard and read about the work and some came into ZIPAR to give us their insights. So working with Euphrasia right from the start of the project we went out there with very little on our plate – and as a result, lots of feedback came in which informed and sort of carved out the report.
KI: Were there ever any tensions between close relationship with the ministry and also ZIPAR doing public media work?
SN: Not so much for this report. I think because of the involvement of government right at the beginning. If we had gone a different route where we had done quite of lot of work and then disseminate before the government knew about it that would have been bound to create tension.
KI: After you published the report you continued your advocacy work. Can you say a little about that?
SN: After the final report was out we secured a slot at a Ministry of Finance “economic management meeting”. These are chaired by the Secretary to the Treasury (who is the head of the Treasury) and include all the senior Ministry officials, the Bank of Zambia, the Zambia Revenue Authority and other important agencies – a wide range of key decision makers. In fact, in this meeting one of the things they picked up on was the sinking fund. In fact, the government asked us to do some more work on the details of the sinking fund. Also, a third Eurobond was issued after ZIPAR had published the report. We responded to this in the media, using it as an opportunity to reiterate the same arguments. We were working on the basis that people are bound to listen after you say the same thing over and over again!
KI: Can you say a little more about the relationship between you, as the lead researcher, and the ZIPAR’s lead communications person, Euphrasia? How did that relationship work?
SN: It was a very positive relationship. If it was just up to the researchers then we would not have communicated as positively as we did. But Euphrasia understands the media industry very well. She’d tell me: “you can talk to this person and this person” and she knows which journalists are influential. As well as numerous local media appearances, we even ended up talking to the BBC World Service and CNBC Africa. The other thing that Euphrasia has done is make sure that we use as much non-technical language as possible! She asked me to think about the audience. People like my mother who is no economist. IF she understands it, then I know that other people will do as well. One of the results of the media coverage was that we had so much interest in the project: when we finally did the dissemination the attendance was phenomenal – we have never had that kind of attendance before.
KI: Summing up, if you were to highlight three key lessons about how to conduct an influential think tank study, what would they be?
SN: First, the topic needs to come from the stakeholders themselves, or be very topical and policy relevant. You need to engage the stakeholders early and say “this is the idea, what do you think?” Second, start talking about it in the media as soon as you can, because once you generate that interest, there will be a lot of stakeholders and experts who come in and tell you what they think about the project. And third, you need to develop workable policy proposals – in our case we did this by listening to the experts in Zambia, but also getting ideas from around the world.
My biggest challenge now is to replicate this again in my future work. It has become a benchmark for me and also for ZIPAR more generally. It is something we now have to live up to.