African think tanks and the challenge of reinvention for sustainability

The latest Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, which ranks think tanks from across the globe according to a set of specified criteria, features 17 African think tanks in its 2020 Top Think Tanks Worldwide (Non-US) category. The report notes that there has been an increase in excellent think tanks in Africa. However, along with several other reports, it also notes that lack of funding is an impediment to their growth, potential and sustainability. I attribute this to the conflict between the nature of think tanks and political, economic, and administrative cultures in Africa.

Below, I outline the various models of think tanks as categorised in the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report . They are: government-affiliated, autonomous, and independent, quasi-independent, quasi-governmental, political party-affiliated and corporate (for-profit) think tanks. I further argue how each of these models is not suitable for the African political climate, resulting in stunted growth of the think tank sector.

Government-affiliated think tanks

Government-affiliated think tanks are part of the government’s formal structure. However, African governments rarely fund or invest in think tanks. At the 6th Africa Think Tank Summit in 2019, the African Capacity Building Foundation Executive Secretary, Professor Emmanuel Nnadozie, complained about the lack of support from governments for African think tanks and how this causes unsustainability.To illustrate this, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, there was an upsurge in government-affiliated think tanks on national security and foreign policy in the US but Africa’s responses to security issues is “closing the space for think tanks and democratic institutions to operate and affect policy. This opens the space for military approaches, para-govt activities and private security services”.

Perhaps this lack of support is due to several reasons that include the fact that Africa governments have limited funds to spend on think tanks, which they (wrongfully) view as nonessential for government business and state affairs. Moreover, the collapse of government think tanks in Africa may be attributed to governance failures that are largely associated with African states.

Quasi-governmental think tanks

Quasi-governmental think tanks are funded exclusively by government grants and contracts but are not a part of the formal structure of government. African governments struggle with mismanagement and a lack of funding; grants and contracts for knowledge production are not something they prioritise. In addition, such think tanks are at a disadvantage in that they cannot compete with the volume of knowledge and data production that international institutions working on African issues can produce (due to their resources).

Autonomous and independent think tanks

Autonomous and independent think tanks are mostly free from donor, government, and private interest group interference. They are criticised from many quarters because their work is usually unencumbered by the interests of funders. Their liberal and famously uncompromised nature renders them difficult to fund by local funders. This leaves them at the mercy of Western and international donors. International foundations of high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) have always supported autonomous and independent think tanks in the US and around the world.

African think tanks are also beneficiaries of the largesse of donors such as business magnate George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Hewlett Packard, and Carnegie, among many others. African governments suspiciously view think tanks funded by outsiders and foreign institutions as instruments of regime change. To avoid this, it would be helpful if African HNWIs supported think tanks in their own countries. However, these individuals rarely do. A Nedbank report on HNWIs in South Africa shows that they mostly support religious and social causes while advocacy and politics groups receive the least funding.

Quasi-independent think tanks

These think tanks are autonomous from government but are controlled by an interest group, donor or contracting agency that provides most of the funding and has considerable influence over their operations. The fact that they are controlled by their funders makes them lose credibility and integrity, especially given how African policy spaces are heavily politicised.

University-affiliated think tanks

These think tanks are associated with universities or are part of universities. In most cases, they raise their own funds even though they are associated with an academic institution. By their nature, university-affiliated think tanks carry out engagements that spill over from classrooms and textbooks; they are expressions and extensions of classroom debates. Dating back to the colonial era, academic institutions have always been a breeding ground for dissenting voices in Africa.

Even after independence, think tanks in academic institutions are platforms for dissent, and dictatorial governments have always suppressed them. This is done by appointing individuals who are sympathetic to the government (politicians) to positions of academic leadership (such as chancellors and vice-chancellors), hence curtailing the organisations’ activities and making them redundant and unattractive for funding.

Political party-affiliated think tanks

These think tanks are formally associated with political parties. In Africa, such think tanks are not prevalent. However, various think tanks have shown that they have political leanings. For example, in South Africa, the Institute for Race Relations is sometimes accused of being associated with the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition political party. The political landscape in South Africa allows for such associations; however, the rest of Africa is not so lucky. Most political parties also have no use for think tanks because they do not win elections on policy matters but on pushing their ambitious manifestos, struggle-against-colonialism nostalgia, and deep-seated fears by African citizens of re-colonisation and oppression. If political party-affiliated think tanks are associated with opposition parties, they suffer the same fate as opposition parties – their staff are often harassed, the right to freedom of association is curtailed, and funding is blocked.

Corporate (for-profit) think tanks

For-profit public policy research organisations are affiliated with a corporation or are mainly operating on a for-profit basis. They are crowded out by the international organisations with more credibility and years of experience.

The way forward

Africa cannot move forward without properly functioning think tanks in all their manifestations. The work they do is important for policy formulation, support for government work, and open and robust public dialogue. The problem that think tanks face is that they are based on Western models that are not compatible with the African political environment, which is mostly dictatorial and without the economic means to support think tanks.

African think tanks need to be innovative and quick to adapt. Firstly, they need to rid themselves of the perception that they are elite. They should be structured from the bottom up and represent the perspectives of grassroots’ constituencies. They must find their roots in communities and the general populace. They must be people centred. Civil society organisations are making huge strides in creating active citizenry. Collaborations with these organisations will result in wider support for think tanks by citizens, which can act as a buffer against government interventions.

Secondly, African communities need to find ways to fund their own think tanks despite how challenging this will be. Think tanks across the continent should cease looking to the West only for financial support and explore innovative ways of fundraising locally. Barriers to fundraising for think tanks are linked to issues of agenda-setting and whose interests they are pandering to. If the funds are raised by the people for the people, this potentially removes the question of whose interests think tanks are serving.

In short, the African political state is not conducive to the current think tank models in existence in Africa. For their sustainability, African think tanks must reinvent themselves to suit continental conditions.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACSUS.