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Insight: What role do African think tanks play in development

FOCUS - UNGA SPECIAL REPORT

Insight: What role do African think tanks play in development

For this edition, we asked several think tanks  to contribute analyses in areas of their expertise. You will find these in the section labeled ‘Insights’. Why is  the role of African think tanks key to development? Read on…

Think tanks can be described as groups of experts who engage in research and advocacy in a wide range of areas. Typically, these are social and economic policy, politics and governance, the environment, health, agriculture, science and technology and many more.

Think tanks differ from traditional academic research in that they aim to influence public policy and public opinion. They are often independent (although they can be commissioned by the public or private sectors to research specific areas). Think tanks generally get their funding from commissions, corporates or more likely in Africa, from philanthropic or charitable organisations.

As societies have become more complex, requiring more detailed data and accurate analysis to make informed decisions, so the need for think tanks has increased. Today, there are an estimated 7,000 think tanks the world over, with the highest number, 1,872 in the US (Washington DC alone has over 400). In the whole of Africa, there are around 500 think tanks.

The value of think tank research is that it is often independent and can examine issues of great public importance from a neutral perspective, rather than as interested parties in government or corporations. In addition, by focusing on specific areas, think tanks can develop deep expertise in their fields of focus.

Perhaps the most important role for think tanks, particularly in emerging markets such as Africa, is to engage both the public and policy makers in examining the full spectrum of ideas, concepts and theories that form the foundations of our nations.

What are the economic, social and political options for Africa? Are the current concepts and practices the correct fit for the continent given is history, its culture and its various endowments? What sort of relationships must the continent adopt with the rest of the world or internally? What are the priorities that need to be addressed before other aspirations can be achieved? What are the best options to implement policy? What are the causes of success and failure of African nations?

Such questions are raised on a daily basis in conversations and in the media. Radio and other media pundits make their careers on the basis of their analysis of current hot issues but how much of their opinions are based on facts, on evidence, on disciplined analysis and how much is spur-of-the-moment sounding off?

Spreading ideas

This is where think tanks come into their own. With their rigorous research backgrounds and disciplined analytical approaches, think tanks can provide the evidence-based arguments needed for effective decisions and implementation.

Think tanks disseminate their findings through the publications of papers and reports but are most effective in influencing public policy by spreading ideas and discussions through the media. The views of the senior members of various think tanks is often sought by the media when reporting on major issues and the leading lights of some think tanks are in constant demand at global conferences.

Think tanks such as the Brookings Institution or the European Policy Centre have acquired enormous reputations around the world and exert very considerable influence on the direction of public and private thought.

Both these institutions, as well as many of the other best-known ones, such as the Cato Institute, have highly developed and sophisticated information departments that disseminate their views and opinions across a very broad media band.

With the direction of Africa’s development constantly evolving, African think tanks have a very important role to play in the continental debate. Unfortunately, given the nature of their output, many of their findings hardly ever make it to the public space and gather dust on library shelves.

With this in mind, we commissioned some African think tanks to tackle important issues from a local perspective. They responded enthusiastically and provided us with well researched papers. We have edited these to fit the style of our publication and the space available but kept to the spirit of the research. 

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