Think tank models of Zambia: Academic, Political, NGO, and Faith-based

14 March 2013

I have mentioned two think tank models in Zambia: the academic-ACBF model and the political think tank, best illustrated by PMRC. But there are two other models, and possibly a fifth, that are also worth mentioning.

The first one is the NGO think tank. In Zambia, two possible good examples of this are the Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD) and, if I stretch the definition quite a bit, Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR). So let’s focus on CTPD.

CTPD is a think tank that emerged out of the secretariat of a network of NGOs interested in working on trade and development related issues. Most of the secretariat’s early efforts were focused on capacity building but it slowly refocused its attention towards policy analysis and influence.

The network members act as a sort of assembly or board and the centre’s main funders are international NGOs some of which still provide core funding. Invaluable for a think tank. Its director, Savior Mwamba has said of the challenges think tanks face in Zambia:

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.

As an NGO think tank, PMRC has been particularly good at linking up to international policy fora and local NGOs and grassroots. So, unlike the academic and political think tanks, this model offers a window into the world of NGOs.

The fourth model is the faith-based think tank. I have written about the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) before.  This model provides two key advantages: a narrative and a constituency. On the narrative, I wrote:

Evidence, combined with explicit appeals to values and the stories drawn from the Bible more specifically, makes JCTR an interesting case of an ideologically identifiable think tank (but not one that Josef Braml had in mind when he compared think tanks in the United States and Germany). JCTR is able to use the well-known and powerful narrative, as well as the many stories and metaphors, that religion provides to communicate its evidence in a manner that resonates with both specialised and general audiences in Zambia. It is not surprising then that JCTR makes more and better use of the mainstream media as well as social networks (physical, not virtual) to disseminate its messages –for instance with op-eds in The Post.

On the constituency; JCTR, for example, has developed an excellent product: the Basic Needs Basket. (See the Complete History, Methodology, Advocacy Strategy and Data for the Basic Needs Basket.) JCTR reports that the Basic Needs Basket is:

Today, the Basic Needs Basket is the most cited statistical tool for various purposes in Zambia… It gets regular and wide dissemination (published in newspapers, NGO newsletters and periodic reports, cited in scholarly studies, and circulated in government offices, international organizations, embassies, trade unions and businesses).

Some trade unions have brought the monthly food basket into their wage negotiations in arguing for increases to meet basic needs. It is a tool that receives wide attention and stirs a lot of discussion.

This is true; I have had conversations with taxi drivers based on it. But what is most important is that JCTR is able to gather this information and distribute it through a vast network of Churches and faith-based groups across Zambia.

There is, possibly, a fifth model: the association think tank. The Economics Association of Zambia (EAZ) is, on paper, not a think tank but it does fulfil many of their convening functions.

Now, I think there is room for at least one more: a natural resources think tank that focuses on Zambia’s natural resources and aims to move away from an extractive economy and transforms it into a knowledge economy.

My take is that this diversity is positive. It means that Zambia is experimenting with different models, some more ‘local’ than others; some more successful than others. The challenge today is to take advantage of this opportunity to study the think tank community there and work alongside Zambian think tanks to support their development -one by one; and not to impose blanket assumptions and solutions.