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February 20, 2019

ALEX AWITI: Africa needs stronger think tanks to drive growth and prosperity

The human brain
The human brain

There has been a proliferation of institutions, public or for profit or not for profit that generate policy-relevant evidence, hence enabling those responsible for decisions to make evidence informed decisions. These institutions or groups are called think tanks.

Think tanks were founded in the 1800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. Today think tanks are founded with the idea that determined and focused research groups could solve the world’s wicked problems. Think tanks are essentially first responders to the complex challenges and opportunities that confront our hyper-connected, rapidly changing globalised world.

While think tanks have been invaluable in the North America and Europe, their role in the developing world, especially on the African continent, is tenuous. But there is no doubt that the big challenges and opportunities that face Africa require robust and reliable evidence to inform policy, planning and action.

From my experience, working in the business of thinking in most African countries is fraught with heartache, frustration and sometimes personal peril. Our voices are often marginalised. It boils down to the old proverb, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”.

Whoever funds the road or railway infrastructure determines your spatial and land use policy. And, more importantly, your long-term local, national or regional economic policy.

Similarly, whoever funds your health, agriculture and education programs determines in consequential ways the health, nutrition and human capital of your country. Think about the negative consequences of the World Bank’s decision not to fund tertiary education in Africa.

Africa’s think tanks must be at the forefront, shaping and driving Africa’s policy and development priorities. This is not to discount the vaults of exquisite knowledge of the continent held by the IMF or the World Bank or McKinsey of Brookings Institution or Oxford University or Harvard University.

Bilateral agencies such as UK’s DfID, USAID, Germany’s GIZ and China, to name a few, have enormous sway on things from sanitation policy to how we grow our food to how Africa trades with itself. Much of what these organisations have to say about us is least informed by research output from local think tanks or scholars.

Recently, the emergence of the “Developmental State” or the “Hard State”, which is essentially state-led macro-economic planning or central design, is further eroding the value or relevance of African think tanks. Doing trumps thinking.

The big challenges of our time – climate change, urbanisation, youth bulge, unemployment, food and nutrition – and their complex interdependence, demand more analytical rigour and sophisticated policy advise, beyond the singular policy issue focus, which is the modus operandi of most African think tanks. Is irrelevance beckoning?

Moreover, the era of big data, the advent of social media and the rising influence of the private sector, civil society and local communities presents a landscape that won’t be charitable to business as usual approaches by African think tanks.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Can African think tanks step up to the plate?

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga khan University.

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