The crisis of African think tanks: Challenges and solutions

Editor's note:

On November 3 and 4, 2017, the Think Tank and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania, the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the Wilson Center, the Fundaçao Getulio Vargas (FGV), and the Carnegie Corporation of New York jointly convened a group of leading African think tanks, donors, and policymakers in Washington, D.C. The forum, “Fit for the future: Enhancing the capacity, quality, and sustainability of Africa’s think tanks,” examined four main challenges and solutions to realize a sustainable future for Africa’s think tanks: Funding, independence, quality, and impact. This piece highlights some of the major takeaways from that discussion.

View the full list of discussants and participating institutions.

African think tanks are under serious threat: Many of the credible think tanks have disappeared, and the survival of the remaining ones is at stake. In fact, at the first Africa Think Tank Summit in 2014 in South Africa, Dr. Frannie Leautier, the then-director of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) reported that 30 percent of Africa’s think tanks may close within five to seven years. In addition, drawing from data collected on African think tanks, the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program has estimated that 60 percent (30 percent plus an additional 25-30 extremely fragile organizations) of think tanks are highly vulnerable with a serious risk of disappearing, given unstable funding, staff turnover, and brain drain. The nature and the scope of the think tank crisis constitute a big risk to sustained African transformation. In fact, over the past two decades, the shift of perception from an Africa facing “permanent crisis” to “Africa rising” can be partly attributed to the work of African think tanks, which have provided stronger and more nuanced understanding of and policy options for improving policy and governance. From past examinations of African think tanks, we find that they share challenges around four prominent themes—funding, independence, quality, and impact. Moving ahead, then, how can African think tanks be strengthened in order to continue Africa’s economic, political, and social development?

  1. Funding

One of the biggest challenges faced by African think tanks is funding availability and sustainability. Funding is often uncertain, irregular, insufficient, and unequally distributed in the think tank space exacerbated by the fact that African think tanks are overly dependent on international funding. Competition between countries, and between think tanks and governments officials in securing international financial resources, as well as the limited involvement of the private sector also contribute to this dearth.

Think tanks should strengthen their strategic partnerships and seek long-term contracts in order to anticipate revenue streams for subsequent years. While staying true to their missions, think tanks should strive for a better understanding of evolving philanthropy in the think tank space and seek to define synergies and value propositions that attract the private sector. Clearly articulating why and how think tanks matter builds a long-term relationship with potential donors. Global entities are likely to provide resources to think tanks that share a common vision. Strategic orientation in fundraising and development should respond to existing competition while building long-term and sustainable relationships and streams of revenues.

  1. Independence and autonomy

African think tanks are facing a myriad of challenges to their independence. The first challenge to think tank independence is the risk of cooptation by government agencies or the political opposition. This risk is particularly high in non-competitive regimes and new democracies, where some think tank leaders are often offered positions or contracts by public officials or the opposition, if they are not already active members or executives of political parties. Furthermore, some members of the public do not trust think tanks under the belief that they are working for the government or for the opposition. Think tanks also face the risk of becoming agents for the promotion of special interests of specific donors aiming to advance their policy agenda—particularly when think tanks do not have a clear independence and compliance policy. Finally, think tanks are facing the risk of becoming consultant firms when the funding and/or quantity and nature of contracts that they receive affects their ability to pursue an independent research agenda.

Think tanks should vigorously assert their independence and jealously preserve their “raison d’être” while producing quality work to achieve high impact with policymakers and the public. For example, they should make it clear to policymakers, funders, and the public that they only communicate evidence-based findings and work within the country’s legal framework. It is also important for think tanks to clearly state in their mission whether their organization is partisan or nonpartisan. Ensuring a high level of integrity also entails incorporating horizontal and vertical accountability practices into the think tank such as conflict of interest agreements, a code of ethics, anti-corruption and bribery training, random sampling investigations of think tank employees, and whistle blowing reporting mechanisms.

In order to be effective, think tanks should strive to be data and fact-driven, bold and consistent in seeking to make a policy difference. African think tanks should market themselves as independent organizations that produce actionable solutions relevant for society. In order to reduce potential pressures, think tanks should diversify sources of funding and develop collective responses to common problems, for example, by creating local think tank networks.

  1. Quality and capacity

The quality of outputs from some African think tanks is sometimes below recognized global standards, thus threatening sustainability. Some think tanks struggle with producing work that is in line with global standards for quality. This is usually the result of a limited quantity and quality of well-trained scholars, communication and development professionals, and think tank leaders and administrators. Retention is also a major problem as staff members often leave a few years after training to get better-paid positions at other organizations such as international institutions, foundations, and the private sector.

Think tanks should develop coaching and training programs to retain and engage a network of highly skilled scholars and train the next generation of leaders. The primary focus of the trainings and coaching opportunities should be to sustain high standards of data-driven, fact-based, and replicable research, resulting in innovative thinking. Think tanks can also use network organizations as well as collaborate and outsource some of the research, bridging very agile researchers with strong policy skills. Think tanks should also ensure that the quality of their outputs (briefs, reports, social media engagement, etc.) is of the highest standard. Partnerships with think tanks from the West could also be mutually beneficial.

  1. Impact and effective engagement with policymakers and the public

African think tanks are challenged to ensure tangible impact via effective engagement of policymakers and the public. Barriers to impact include limited ability to communicate, limited media exposure and networks, low interest of and access to policymakers, misaligned priorities, limited responsiveness to immediate demands, and a lack of trust.

Think tank leaders should first build trust with policymakers and the public by ensuring a high level of integrity, credibility, transparency, independence, and quality of their work. Building a track record of credibility entails absolute fidelity to the facts and demonstration of successive successful outputs based on data-driven research that inform new ideas or frameworks, contributing to solve pressing problems. Consistently demonstrating their high-quality work through effective dissemination entails clarity and simplicity of messages when communicating with the public, relevance and rapidity of reaction to public issues, adaptability to appropriate communication and engagement channels to reach relevant audiences, systematic social media engagement, engagement and training of citizens—including through public debates—so that they can hold their leaders accountable, and engagement with policymakers by organizing policy conferences, roundtables, and forums. Think tanks could also involve decisionmakers and the public at the inception of their initiatives, not only at the dissemination phase, in order to ascertain what research is most useful for informing current and upcoming policy.

In conclusion, in order to achieve a sustainable future, think tanks should develop a unified voice and act collectively, including for funding. They should accelerate the transfer of best practices among peers, especially related to the training of the next generation of qualified leaders and the strategic planning and engagement with policymakers and the public, in order to ensure the highest impact and contribution to Africa’s prosperity.