Why Africa Needs More Think Tanks

Published on 20th February 2018

Delivered by Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, the 2017 Global Think Tank index is out. Looking at the footprint and atlas of think tanks and their correlation with level development across continents on earth, the view that knowledge isn’t number one ingredient of prosperity is banished.  For example, 26.2 percent of think tanks are in Europe, 25.2 percent in North America, 20.7 percent in Asia, 12.5 percent in South America and 8.5% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, the 2016 International Monetary Fund (IMF) datasets show that Asia’s GDP was at USD 27,222 billion, North America USD 21,260 billion, Europe USD 19,070, South America 3,940 billion, Africa 2,190 billion and Oceania 1,468 billion. Although we see slight non exacts, the trend validates the view that thinking nations create and execute smarter policies that propel, expand and sustain growth and development.

In Uganda, the thought documents anchoring decisions on choice of national investment are The National Resistance Movement Manifesto and Vision 2040. How Uganda’s burgeoning yet nascent think tank industry feeds into this is critical in any moves pointing to envisaged transition to knowledge and First World Country.

There is good news here. Uganda’s Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) has for the 6th consecutive year been ranked as one of the top 100 think tanks in the world. ACODE was ranked number one in Uganda and number 22 out of 90 top think-tanks in Africa. Their work in general public policy advocacy but specifically local government scorecards that have seen improvements in leadership and administrative efficiency in districts was headlined. Uganda needs more ACODEs and not few!

It is also interesting that beyond historic brain trusts led by university system, think tanks on various issues have been mushrooming and thriving in Uganda. Think tanks are organizations that perform  research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policypolitical strategyeconomicsmilitarytechnology, culture among others. Historian Jacob Soll of University of Southern California explains "think tank" as modern, but "it can be traced to the humanist academies and scholarly networks of the 16th and 17th centuries. “Soll notes "in Europe, the origins of think tanks go back to the 800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. A tradition of hiring teams of independent lawyers to advise monarchs about their financial and political prerogatives against the church spans from Charlemagne all the way to the 17th century, when the kings of France were still arguing about whether they had the right to appoint bishops and receive a cut of their income (Wikipedia). Recently, The Economist described “good think tanks” as those organizations that are able to combine “intellectual depth, political influence, and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings, and a streak of eccentricity.”

Beyond this mostly antiquated articulation, there is deep-rooted historical traces of think tanking in Africa. Perhaps less inclusive, think of those elder fireplace conversations in your villages about people issues in those communities! Now various associations on different issues and sectors are convening in evenings at cafes, porches etc. thinking about things. The challenge for us - in Uganda, is that we have had weak documentation – and therefore, critical and transformational thoughts get lost! How can we find them? Let’s document for ourselves and the future. Bigly, transformation rests on this.

But let’s dive deeper. To really understand where we are as a country on parameter of a thinking nation, one needs to keenly look at Vision 2040. Although the document presents some concrete and imaginative work, it is weak on one prime benchmark central to achieving an integrated first world economy by 2040 ~ knowledge! The plan and role of knowledge as propeller of new age transformation is not clearly articulated. Over the years, strategy, planning and funding (investment) for research and innovation has been weak. Former US Vice President Joe Biden once remarked “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” Do we deeply value knowledge/ideas in this country?

A study by James Otieno Jowi and Milton Obamba on research and innovation management in Uganda, Ghana and Kenya concludes that most persistent weakness for mentioned countries is weak financing systems for knowledge production that are mostly dependent on unpredictable international donations and lack of national and institutional policies and programs that stimulate collaboration and knowledge exchange between research subsystems and the industrial and business subsystems. So, how will we then achieve a knowledge economy if we don’t make knowledge a priority?

Make no mistake, even the more practical and mass empowering manufacturing sector only works to full capacity when powered by knowledge to drive innovations, efficiency and competitiveness. I know Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development funds to some extent the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC). This tendency should be democratized to include more think tanks working on different issues without compromising their independence. For a country with a strong military, it is strange that research and innovations for development is lagging behind. Militaries all over the world retain a rich history of research driven advancement and innovations and continue to mostly lead on cutting edge technology. Perhaps now, the challenge is to harness the vast reservoir of knowledge, information and associational energy into practical inputs for public good.

For think-tanks to succeed, they will need to work closely and creatively with the most powerful force ever created by man – Government. Some of the key institutions these think-tanks should work with are the National Planning Authority, Parliament and Office of the President. These are institutions at the center of planning and forecasting for the future, legislating and acting on the present. For think tanks to be effective, they will by and large require to put people at the center of their work. Think tanks should pull over and ally with those governing to help reform public policy and work for the greater good.

By Morrison Rwakakamba,

Coffee Farmer, Nyamubogore Village, Nyeibingo Parish, Kebisoni, Rukungiri.

This article has been read 971 times