analysisBy Liesl Louw-Vaudran
At the opening of the first African Regional Think Tanks Summit in Irene, Pretoria earlier this week, renowned Cameroonian-born scholar Achille Mbembe described Africa as 'the epicentre of global change.'
He added, however, that this is not fully acknowledged because of the way the continent is portrayed. 'This [Africa] is where the most defining challenges of our times are being played out - sometimes with potentially global consequences and signification, and with increasing urgency,' said Mbembe, a member of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Stereotypes continue to plague thinking about Africa. 'African problems are persistently seen as problems that are happening elsewhere, from a place that is lagging behind,' said Mbembe, who is known, among others, for his 2001 book On the Postcolony.
He proposes a 'fundamental change of perspective,' saying that researchers in Africa should not only focus on problem-solving, but also deliver critical analysis and interpretation that will be relevant to those most affected by policies. He describes this as, 'Producing the kind of knowledge that gives a voice to the voiceless.'
So, who should produce this knowledge? And to what extent can such knowledge be truly Africa-centred if donors from outside the continent fund so many African research institutions and think tanks? On a continent rife with authoritarian regimes, the strengthening of think tanks - similar to the creation of independent media - is a high-stakes and highly political issue.
Meanwhile, think tanks are becoming increasingly influential worldwide. United States President Barack Obama reportedly doesn't make a decision without consulting them, while China is spending millions of dollars on setting up and supporting think tanks - a recognition of their impact as a sign of a nation's soft power.
Yet, think tanks in Africa are still few and far between. They are often underfunded and largely ignored; and not only by the notoriously anti-democratic governments on the continent.
James McGann, Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania, says African think tanks lag behind those in other regions of the world, mostly because they are under-resourced, have a high staff turnover and lack basic communications tools such as proper websites.
McGann, who annually draws up the Global Go To Think Tanks Index, says African think tanks face multiple threats, including the lack of vibrant media and civil society in many countries.
Of the 6 826 think tanks surveyed in the 2013 index, only 612 were in Africa, with the highest number (1 984) in North America. South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria are among the 12 countries in the world with the most think tanks, but only nine African think tanks are ranked among the world's top 100, with four of these in South Africa.
One of the biggest problems for African think tanks is that they are viewed with suspicion by governments and the policymakers whom they try to influence.
Governments sometimes accuse them of fronting for Western donors; yet, these same governments would employ expensive consultants from outside the continent to advise on policy.
So, how to get around this? McGann believes that African think tanks can benefit from networking and standing together. Getting funding is generally a problem, especially given all the other priorities on the continent.
The more privileged African think tanks in countries like South Africa face other, more insidious, pressures. These are mainly related to donors dictating what they should study, and even what the outcomes ought to be.
Mbembe points out that there is a huge hunger in Africa for 'socially relevant knowledge and expertise on the continent'. The South African government, for example, yearly spends over R1 billion on various studies, he says. Yet the majority of these contracts go to Euro-American firms, cabinets, think tanks and universities.
'This must change; if we want to move forward, African think tanks must have their fair share,' he says. He laments the fact that a lot of research is short-term, fragmented and tends to follow the latest trends, rather than trying to 'fill the gaps in our knowledge'.
The optimism around Africa's economic growth rates - 'Africa Rising' - and the growth of the middle class could be the saving grace of African think tanks. Some believe that increasingly informed and empowered citizens in African countries will automatically demand more civic participation in governmental decisions through lobbying and advocacy.
It is hoped that they would demand credible and independent institutions and think tanks, and that they would spot those institutions set up by authoritarian regimes as cover to justify their policies - as is the case in places like Russia and China. Or is the African middle class more interested in maintaining current power relations and not rocking the boat?
One would be justified in asking whether African think tanks are too elitist. The fine line between an NGO working with grassroots communities for social change and think tanks that are destined to 'think' and advise policymakers is sometimes difficult to spot.
In Africa, it is not so much the proximity to communities, but rather the issues they focus on that will determine whether think tanks are really helping to 'give a voice to the voiceless,' as Mbembe advocates.
Of course, much depends on who is in power. In Eastern Europe, after the fall of communist regimes, many individuals from think tanks were drawn into the new governments.
McGann explains that this was seen to contribute to the successful transformation of these regimes, with the success due to their ability to maintain independent thinking. Independent thinkers certainly face huge obstacles in Africa, but they are also crucial for building vibrant democracies.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant