Universities and Think Tanks in Africa: Competing or Complementing?

26 June 2015
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

[Editor’s note: This is the third post in the series on Think Tanks and Universities, edited by Shannon Sutton. This post was written by Darlison Kaija, a Programme Coordinator for Research at PASGRan independent, non-partisan pan-African not-for-profit organisation located in Nairobi, Kenya.]

While African think tanks and universities frequently work together, these relationships are complicated. Bureaucracy, differing attitudes and a lack of resources all pose potential barriers, and misconceptions can jeopardize collaboration. In reality, these institutions have a great deal in common and it is essential to understand where their comparative advantage lies.

Traditionally, universities have played a primary role in leading and undertaking research in many African countries. However, this is changing. The rapid increase in the number of think tanks and their prominence has the potential to both enhance, and undermine, the contribution and role of universities to research.

Our study, Think Tank-University Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa shares findings from Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

We found that think tanks and universities work together in many ways at both the institutional and individual level. These associations tend to be unstructured, tenuous, and ad hoc in nature. The links between them are rarely embedded in established structures or guided by defined processes or rules. Where “formal” institutional collaborations have developed, they are often underpinned by pre-existing individual relationships.

The table below provides a summary of the likely relationships between think tanks and universities at both institutional and individual levels:

Possible combinations of goals (ends) and means (strategies)  Possible relationship  Explanation of the relationships at both institutional and individual levels 
Similar ends with similar means Cooperation A cooperative relationship is likely when, on a given issue, think tanks and universities not only share similar goals but also prefer similar strategies for achieving them (A convergence of preferred ends as well as means).
Dissimilar ends with dissimilar means Confrontation A confrontational relationship is likely when think tanks and universities consider each other’s goals and strategies to be antithetical to their own (Total divergence of preferred ends as well as means)
Similar ends but dissimilar means Complementary A complementary relationship is likely when think tanks and universities share similar goals but prefer different strategies (Divergent strategies but convergent goals).
Dissimilar ends but similar means Co-optation A co-optive relationship is likely when think tanks and universities share similar strategies but have different goals (divergent goals but convergent strategies). These kind of relationships are unstable and often transitory.

Source: Adapted from Najam, A. (2002). 4Cs of NGO-Government Relations: Complementarity, Confrontation, Cooperation and Co-option.  LEAD Occasional Papers Pakistan

Collaborations between universities and think tanks are complex and are influenced by social, economic, cultural, and political factors. These affect both the motivations and the nature of these collaborations.  The motivations for cooperation are diverse and range from the need to improve effectiveness and efficiency, to the pursuit of individual interests (such as taking on an extra job to boost personal earnings). The nature of the collaboration depends on factors such as national context, the types of institutions involved, areas of focus, ideological orientations, and the kinds of support each receives from funding organizations.


We found, however, a number of common challenges that arise when think tanks and universities choose to collaborate. These often relate to:

  • Bureaucracy: The high level of bureaucracy in universities tends to frustrate both university and think tank staff members when trying to establish collaborative relationships. In the absence of a deliberate and formalized collaborative culture as well as lack of formal avenues for information sharing and communication, there is a limited understanding of what either party has to offer to the other.
  • Different attitudes: The different traditions and attitudes in universities and think tanks can create competition, and start collaborations off on the wrong foot. Think tank professionals believe that problem-solving, particularly in the policy world, should be driven by real demand and not by theoretical considerations. University academics contend that scholarly rigour is a better approach to generate knowledge that solves problems, and criticize think tanks for skewing results in favour of pre-set positions. This causes the institutions to interact when they have to, and keep their distance when there is no obvious need for cooperation.
  • Lack of resources: The lack of relevant resources hampers effective collaboration. Human resources with the required partnership skills; spaces that can be used to foster collaboration; financial resources; and technological resources are all important tools to support cooperation. Development assistance can provide much-needed support to nurture positive and complementary relationships, but great care and sensitivity is needed to avoid distorting the existing power relations between think tanks and universities.


These challenges, however, are quite inevitable and are probably present in every country in the world, to different degrees of complexity. In fact, a key element that turns these challenges into real barriers for collaboration is the prevalence of deeply seated misconceptions of what collaboration between think tanks and universities looks like. A few examples relate to:

  • Competition: Incorrectly, there is a perception that think tanks have displaced universities as the centres of research activity; the research output of universities has declined while the output by think tanks has increased. In reality, however, think tanks and universities have quite a bit in common in Africa, and complement each other in research and training, although less so in policy dialogue and consultancy. Both think tanks and universities allocate at least 91% of their time to research and training.
  • One-way relationship: There is a view that universities effectively supply think tanks with employees (graduates or teaching staff) and work (through commissioned research). In fact, both parties bring different but complementary skills and resources. However, shared common interests, a clear agenda, knowledge of the skills and resources that each party can offer, and strict roles are critical for successful collaboration. 64% and 80% of think tanks and universities respectively engage researchers from both universities and think tanks (mixed team) in carrying out research, though collaboration is mainly initiated by think tanks.
  • It’s all rosy: It is often assumed that collaborations between think tanks and universities are complementary and all lead to positive outcomes. Unfortunately, while think tanks and universities often complement each other in research and training (as seen in #1), these collaborations are nuanced and unlikely to be represented by purely positive (or negative) experiences.

What can we conclude from this?

Overall, it is important to appreciate that each actor has its comparative advantage, especially in the research-to-policy process. The systematic approach of universities and the policy-savviness of think tanks could make collaboration rewarding.

In Africa, organic institutional collaboration has not worked well, perhaps because the financial rewards are not delivered to the individuals who do the work. Institutional collaboration may collapse if it is in conflict with individual self-interest.

A middle ground that presents a win-win environment and takes into account the unique needs of individual researchers, the needs of research institutions as well as those of donors, is needed.

Think tanks and universities can potentially develop useful synergies if they explore collaboration opportunities, taking into consideration the country context and addressing the challenges in this landscape.