Adapt or die: African think tanks

After a raft of summits and multiple efforts to support the development of African think tanks, the dialogue is still focused on crisis. But think tanks can adapt to changes in the way the world is doing business.

by | Mar 29, 2018

There are nearly 700 think tanks in Africa, most of them national think tanks, according to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania. There have been multiple efforts to support the development of think tanks across the continent, including the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), the Investing in Africa Think Tank Alliance (IATTA), and the African Think Tank Network (ATTN).

And though there have been four Africa Think Tank Summits initiated by the African Capacity Building Foundation on the continent, with a fifth to be held on April 5-7 in Accra, yet the dialogue around think tanks in Africa is still one of crisis. TTCSP estimates that 60 percent of think tanks in Africa are highly vulnerable. According to a December 2017 meeting of leading African think tanks, this is due to lack of funding, limited independence and autonomy in many cases, low capacity and ineffective engagement with policymakers.

For economic policy institutes in particular, one could argue that the last point is the real problem – and the other issues are symptoms of the first. There is no doubt that think tanks provide many useful roles – from academic research, to giving voice to many stakeholders, to advocating on important topics. But the world has changed and think tanks need to adapt. 

Data access

Not so long ago think tanks, universities and a few consulting firms largely dominated development research, while data from the United Nations, World Bank, IMF and OECD were highly guarded or only available for a price.

Today, due to the open data movement, nearly all development data is readily available for free and very often with tools to use the data in innovative and exciting ways. Likewise, with ever more sophisticated search tools, nearly anyone can be a basic researcher simply by using Google. Information that used to be sliced, diced, collated and packaged by think tanks is now only a few clicks away.

Giving voice

Again, not so long ago it was difficult to be heard if you were a lone individual, a marginalized group or had views that were not mainstream. Today, everyone can have a voice. Individuals have millions of followers on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. And one could dare say that many of those individuals across the continent are much savvier on social media than African think tanks. Which African think tank has a million followers?

At the same time, new fora have sharply surpassed traditional roundtable discussions in a hotel conference room in Nairobi or Dakar. Ted Talks, the World Economic Forum, South by Southwest, the Milken Institute Global Conference, and a myriad of other similar online and in-person forums have transformed how people are convened and how topics are addressed, giving voice to many who had no stage previously.

Advocacy role

Many African think tanks and similar institutions play an extraordinarily important role in advocating for important topics. Whether it is the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi harnessing applications of science for long term sustainability or the African Population and Health Research Center leading Africa’s research leadership and scientific excellence, these think tanks have an important purpose. 

But for economic policy institutes, advocacy is not enough. While there is great diversity of economic approaches, most African countries are pursuing similar open market policies that spur growth, deepen exports, diversify their economies and address the balance between growing urban areas and the importance of agriculture. In this environment, many economic advocates are preaching to the choir.

The efforts of ongoing initiatives to support African think tanks should continue as there is great value for example in creating a space for knowledge sharing and mutual learning or facilitating the development of media and public engagement training programs (goals of think tank initiatives identified above).


But economic policy institutes in Africa will only remain relevant if they are directly involved in strengthening policy making.  Beyond addressing issues related to funding, it can be argued that key sustainability challenges for think tanks will be overcome if they are contributing to a positive policy dialogue, i.e. if there is good value, then money will follow.

In many cases individual economic think tanks are undertaking research and analysis, but are disconnected from the day-to-day policy dialogue. Likewise, they are not always seen as “partners” by Government, and hence operate in compartmentalized academic or sectoral areas with limited impact on reform programs or thought leadership. Finally, there is very little think tank-to-think tank collaboration on actual policy issues, hence African think tanks are not leveraging their individual strengths for collective gain. 

To increase collaboration on real time policy issues, economic think tanks could:

  • With government and stakeholders collectively identify common policy challenges being faced in a group of countries;
  • Identify good/best practice in Africa and abroad to be shared in real time;
  • Work together to undertake analysis (such as multi-country case studies that can be used to inform policy makers and convene stakeholders), identify policy solutions and work with governments to craft and support implementation of policy reforms.

This approach to multiple countries and multiple think tanks could allow for a structured policy dialogue around a proven process for gathering research, sharing ideas, supporting policy implementation and conducting implementation follow-ups.

A collective work program focused on real-time policy issues will ensure that economic policy institutes in Africa are having the intended impact. Challenges will remain and not all think tanks will survive. Those that work together have a better chance of survival – and of securing funding from global partners.

In this scenario, it will also be more realistic for groups of think tanks to link their work to major development strategies, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2063, the T20 global group of think tanks, and the G20 Compact with Africa. Combining forces, capacity and expertise to focus on policy issues that matter to the people of Africa today is the adaptation required.


Written By

Rob Floyd

Director and Senior Advisor

African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)

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