Zambia is the place to be for new ideas on think tanks

12 March 2013

This week I want to write about think tanks in Zambia where very interesting new developments are taking place. This first post introduces a new and promising think tank and explains its origins in a bold donor and an enlightened political leadership.

A new think tank

In February I returned to Lusaka to work with the Policy Monitoring and Research Centre (PMRC); a new think tank in Zambia. I had visited them about 6 months before to help them develop a strategy.

At the time, PMRC was a small organisation (it still is): a director, two researchers, and a communicator. One of the researchers doubled as receptionist and most of the admin and the finances were dealt with by the director herself.

Last year I was there to help the think tank develop a workable strategy and help the funder, DFID Zambia in this case, decide if it should keep funding the centre or not. Balancing both objectives was not easy. My approach was to be completely transparent with both side. In other words: what I told one, I told the other; if anything, that made things easier for me.

By the end of my first visit, PMRC had developed a strategy and was on its way to delivering it (I will write more about this later this week). Just for reference, although I want to talk more about this in a future post, the strategy for the organisation is based on a simple research to communication cycle that is repeated over and over again to allow the centre to practice, learn, and continuously improve.

The ‘PMRC series’, as they call it, consists of:

  • A Background Note
    • A Snapshot (an interesting innovation by them)
    • A Reading list
    • A blog or a series of blogs
    • Videos and podcasts
    • A cartoon (another innovation)
  • A Policy Brief or more
    • A Snapshot
    • A Reading list
    • A blog or a series of blogs
    • Videos and podcasts
    • A cartoon

All along they engage policymakers, the private sector and the media and share their work via online services such as Scribd, a WordPress blog, Twitter, a Facebook Page, etc. All of which costs little or nothing.

The one thing missing is the organisation of public events -but these are on their way.

By the time I returned last week the centre had perfected some of these and had produced sufficient outputs to begin a process of reflection and systematisation of their successes and shortcomings. PMRC had also identified areas where it needed additional support and hired new staff: a new communications officer to deal with the publications and free up the senior communications specialist to work with the media more strategically;  a small team of interns; and an administrator to support the Executive Director.

In a very short time, this think tank has shown what can be done with clarity of purpose and dedication. Many think tanks get the kind of institutional funding that PMRC was able to secure but few take advantage of it in the way it did. It now has the basic systems it needs, has developed an approach it can continue to ‘improve on’, and has the right skills among its staff to get on with the job of being a think tank.

Any future capacity needs should not take much to address and I would expect the centre to take the lead in doing so.

But the point of this post is not just to praise PMRC. Rather, I wanted to highlight that many interesting new ideas are emerging out of Zambia in the field of think tanks. If anything, this post is a praise to bold decision making by DFID Zambia and an enlightened new political leadership in the country.

A bold and unique initiative

Although PMRC is not the only think tank in Zambia, it is its newest and it is unique; in Zambia and probably across Africa. It was conceived not so long ago by the leadership of the Patriotic Front, Zambia’s new ruling party. It was not donor led and NGOs had nothing to do with it. PMRC was born Aid-free.

The country’s new political leadership recognised that it needed to develop its programatic capacity if it ever wanted to succeed in steering Zambia safely into the highly coveted Middle Income Country category. According to its General Secretary, in the past, governments had lost their way as soon as they came in power partly, so went the logic behind PMRC, because they had nobody to keep them focused.

From Vice President, Guy Scott’s speech at PMRC’s launch:

Never, in the history of Zambia has a political party recognized the need for establishing an autonomous think tank dedicated to the collection and use of researched data to determine a better way to achieve a national development agenda. It is only through research and fact-based policy decision making that we as a nation can progress.

Hence the name, Policy MONITORING and Research Centre, and it flagship project, a Government Delivery Index that is currently under development.

Unfortunately, Zambia, like much of the developing world, is not full of private individuals or corporations ready to pour their money into think tanks. This type of philanthropist still shines for its absence. But would the international cooperation help? Could a foreign donor support a think tank promoted by a political party?

Well, DFID Zambia decided to step up to the challenge and, drawing on lessons learned from an earlier effort to support a more technical, more expensive, and far less productive think tank in partnership with other funders, backed the political commitment with a bit of cash. It should be said that DFID did offer, as they ought to have done, the same kind of support to other parties (and I assume that if the demand for it ever materialise they would honour their promise; and in fact, I would argue that this would constitute an excellent example of ‘impact’).

This funding allowed PMRC to develop and implement a strategy that has effectively given it independence from the party.  While PMRC owes its origins to a political decision (but what think thank doesn’t?) it has developed its strategy and agenda independently from party politics. It is no less independent than Brookings, IPPR or UNECA could claim to be.

This degree of boldness is not something we see too often in UK Aid in relation to think tanks, which are often treated as consultancies or NGOs. The last time I saw this was in DFID’s Latin American programme where small bit of money and staff time were used imaginatively and strategically to achieve truly impressive results. If there was ever one place that DFID ‘punched above its weight’ that was it.

In any other country I would say this was out of character, but DFID Zambia had already made another important and equally bold move. A couple of years ago I worked with its then economic adviser to develop a programme now called the Economic Advocacy Programme (EAP). Unlike most other DFID initiatives of its kind the EAP has no specific policy objectives. Instead, the EAP seeks to improve the quality of public economic policy debate.

This meant giving up on many common DFID project assumptions and accepting new ones, such as:

  • Rather than paying a think tank to do something entirely new, it is best pay it to do more of what it already does and to do it better;
  • Overlap and disagreement is OK if this leads to a more public and informed debate;
  • Logframe Outcomes and Impacts may never be achieved;
  • More than policy changing what matters is the manner in which it does -policy change may in fact be considered as failure if it did not emerge out of a public debate informed by evidence, among other things; and
  • It is impossible to predict what will happen.

All of this contributed in developing a programme that stands as an interesting comparator to AusAid’s much larger Indonesia Knowledge Support Initiative. The EAP promises to do something similar by different means and at a much smaller scale.

And so supporting PMRC was not out of character for DFID Zambia. If anything it has helped it to gain, almost by chance, a place among the most innovative think tank funders out there. Both by encouraging the development of a public debate rather than focusing on short term policy change and by responding to the enlightened demand by political leaders to develop programatic capacity in the country rather than shunning away from the challenge, I believe that they have made important contributions towards strengthening Zambia’s policy environment.

Whether PMRC is a long term success or not now depends on the centre itself and the support it receives from Zambia’s own private sector (individuals and corporations). Foreign donors can continue to play a role in the short term; not just by supporting this particular think tank but by supporting and encouraging others to follow its lead in developing their own workable models.