Funding boost for local think tanks

Under a new initiative international donors are backing Africa-based policy research to improve local decision-making on complex global issues with potentially enormous humanitarian consequences like food security and climate change.

Led by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and funded by IDRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, the Think Tank Initiative will provide core funding for 24 African think tanks over 10 years. US$30 million has been made available for the initial five years.

“African think tanks are essential to development and to disaster preparedness and to [climate] adaptation,” said Cheikh Ba, senior researcher at the Senegal-based agricultural institute IPAR, a grant recipient. “We can look ahead and anticipate the most urgent crises that our country will face and gather experts and community members and government to find solutions.”

Ba and other observers say too often African institutions must depend on piecemeal donor funding, which can hinder independent, long-term research driven by realities on the ground.

Marie-Claude Martin, head of the initiative, said for now most research in Africa is driven by the demands of external donors, leaving little room for innovation.

“We have good examples with the food crisis and the financial crisis, where independent or national institutions were not present in the debate because they had no opportunity to think about these issues years ago,” Martin said.

Strengthening African institutions

James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of the first global survey of think tanks, said strengthening African institutions is essential to Africa’s ability to predict and respond to complex issues such as climate change or food security.

“With globalization, all crises are now felt [worldwide], but they hit hardest where there is the least capacity to track the trends, analyse them and communicate them to decision-makers and populations,” McGann told IRIN.

“Pick any issue - food, pandemics, climate change - and Africa will be on the downside receiving end of whatever the trend is,” McGann said. “Africa cannot wait for the North to understand and respond to its needs.”

''All crises are now felt [worldwide], but they hit hardest where there is the least capacity to track the trends''

Though the global ideas industry is growing rapidly, the African think tank community remains small. Of more than 5,400 thinks tanks worldwide, sub-Saharan Africa houses just over 400, only slightly more than the 360 think tanks operating in the US capital Washington, DC.

While Asia and Latin America have experienced sustained growth in the number of new think tanks, Africa has experienced a decline in recent years.

McGann said it is about more than just numbers: “African think tanks must be independent, endowed institutes with a core staff that provides the quality research and flexibility to respond to complex issues that hit with force.”

Retaining quality staff

Retaining top quality staff is a challenge, according to Jean Mensa, executive director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a Ghanaian think tank and a grant recipient.

“Up until now we have had to work on specific short-term programmes determined by the funding we received. Recruiting and retaining staff was our biggest challenge,” Mensa told IRIN.

Many of the best and brightest researchers look for employment abroad or in international development projects that offer better conditions and more job security. But if African think tanks are to be effective, Mensa said, long-term investment is essential.

IPAR’s Ba said African governments do not have the luxury of stepping back and reflecting on the larger picture. “Governments here are simply managing emergencies and crises every day. They do not have the time to look 10 years in the future and study the possible scenarios of climate change impact or potential food crises.”

He said if African think tanks do not look decades into the future, development will suffer: “We cannot wait for the sea to cover us or for the social explosion when everyone moves to the city, before we react.”