Think tanks – a strategic resource towards Africa’s technological growth and advancement?

8 May 2020
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2019: think tanks and technology 14 items

As a technology enthusiast, I am an ardent believer that Africa’s socio-economic development is firmly linked to her technological development, growth and advancement. And the opportunity to work for the Government of Ghana under its Information and Communications Technologies for Accelerated Development Policy (ICT4AD) came with a lot of excitement. But after more than a decade working on law and policy related to information and communications technologies, I soon realised that the ideal was far from the reality.

Policy has been playing catchup to technology for a long time, limiting policymakers’ ability to use or harness them for socioeconomic development. This is certainly true in Africa. With a rising consumer market, some of the fastest growing economies, the richest concentration of natural resources, a young population with a growing labor force (in an aging world) and a rapidly changing technology landscape, policy interventions that utilise technologies to accelerate growth in development is snail paced.

I began to question whether there were other impactful ways of driving the development, growth and use of technologies beyond governments.

It soon became obvious: a think tank. I set up the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub to step up the research and advocacy drive for policy implementation and development around digital technologies.

Here I present five reasons why think tanks can be a strategic resource towards Africa’s technological growth and advancement.

Bridging the gap between technology and policy

Policymakers and technologists are usually seen as speaking at cross-purposes. Think tanks have the ability to rally around the table both parties to discuss issues of common interest. These common issues become the central point to creating the balance needed to facilitate policy development and growth.

Think tanks have the potential to present a neutral view, usually informed by research. It has the ability to convene and promote informed dialogue, drawing from the pool of experts from across various divides as a result of its neutral inclination. Think tanks, therefore, can become a trusted voice in potential conflict between technology and policy.

For instance, the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub, under its Data Protection Africa Summit Focus Group discussions, has been able to facilitate dialogue between industry, policymakers, regulators, academia and civil society organisations around issues of data localisation/sovereignty and harmonisation of data protection laws in Africa.

Providing resources and technical expertise

One of the challenges to the development and growth of technologies in Africa is that while public institutions have this mandate, little or no resources are provided to implement it. They cannot afford to hire experts and undertake the comprehensive research needed to make informed policy decisions.

A think tank, however, is in a much better position to access resources and conduct independent research to support decision making in the relevant institutions.

Africa Digital Rights’ Hub, though a small think tank, is able to draw on the voluntary support of various experts for its projects and activities enabling her make informed inputs on technological issues in Africa.   

Moving quickly

Government structures, procedures and processes are highly bureaucratic, meaning that policy implementation in the technology space takes an unusually long time. There are many instances where, at the time of adoption and implementation of policies, the technologies have changed.

This leads to bureaucratic institutions working with obsolete frameworks, and/or having to commence another long and expensive process to change or adopt new policies. For example, Ghana has been discussing the review of its ICT4AD policy (2003) for several years, it has clearly been overtaken by technology in that time.

Uninhibited by governmental bureaucratic constraints, think tanks can be great government partners, minimising bottlenecks, being a sounding board, and undertaking comprehensive research that keeps up with fast-paced nature of technological advancements.

Non-partisan think tanks

Africa’s growing multi-party democracy and political ecosystem can be said to be counterintuitive to technological growth and development. This is due to the politicisation of public institutions meant to facilitate growth and development.

Political cycles and changes in government has resulted in short term outlooks and politicisation that undermine the institutional stability, consistency and continuity necessary for technological growth and development.

The result is that instead of building on pre-existing bodies, knowledge and expertise, governments are more likely to create new units or institutions staffed by loyalists, with little or no knowledge and expertise having to play catch-up. Civil and public servants who remain in post are incapacitated due to the fear of being witch-hunted.

The non-partisan nature of a think tank, however, endears it to all sides of the political divide, giving it the opportunity to advocate for the right, evidence-informed policy interventions.

Facilitating faster and more impactful change

Think tanks have access to the necessary resources, can harness multi-stakeholder interest, generate buy-in, and drive implementation of identified technology agendas.

For instance, as a think tank working on data protection and privacy in Africa, in the last two years, the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub has driven an agenda of ensuring data protection in the development and use of digital IDs. It has led discussions, got stakeholder buy-in and published
a Data Protection Code of Practice for Digital IDs in Africa. In the last year, Africa has seen an increase in similar discussion from key industry, local and international platforms.

Think tanks’ ability to drive policy on technology cannot be underestimated. For Africa it is a strategic part of the drive to attain socioeconomic development through technological growth and development. It is therefore critical that think tanks recognise their role in the ecosystem and intensify their drive for technological development on the continent.