20 September 2017

Ethiopia: Experts Highlight the Need for Strengthening Think Tanks

Experts emphasize the need on developing and further strengthening Think Tanks (TTs) to help with the national development of the country by promoting options and scenarios to policymakers.

In the mainstream narrative, think tanks are described as bridges between knowledge and power. Although the term has its roots in early 1910s in its modern form, it gained traction within the political lexicon in the 1960s, as research institutes that evaluate, generate and advocate public policies.

Chairman of Policy Analysis Department at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFRSSI), an automonous research institute, Melaku Mulualem says the role of think tanks in Ethiopia in terms of promoting options and scenarios to policymakers and influencing public policy is minimal and not at the expected level.

He believes that, this is due to the small number of think tanks existing in the country as compared to other nations, and the unaccustomed culture in involving TTs by policymakers.

According to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Policy Study and Research Center (PSRC), a major government think tank, there are no less than 25 TT institutions working in the country.

The Center reveals that much work is needed to increase their numbers, and in that regard, it has started doing various works to support the sector.

In relation to policymakers' culture of involving think tank, Melaku points out that using TTs is still unaccustomed practice in the policy making circuit. "In my view, I don't think they have understood the huge role TTs can play, besides to having very busy schedule and being preoccupied with their duties," he adds.

Charting out the type of think tanks that exist globally, Dr. Constantinos Berhe, a Professor of Public Policy says that the kind of TTs that primarily exist in Ethiopia are usually limited to the constituency they serve, and are not public as their documentation does not go to public arena where the public debate, comment and discourse on them. For him, this limits the manner in which they can positively influence the policy making landscape of the country.

Given that the policy making process in Ethiopia is largely dominated by the federal ministries and passes through various bodies till it is passed as policy or law, Dr. Constantinos argues that having a bottom-up policy making process will make it conducive for TTs to get involved, create debate and provide alternative policy scenarios for the policymakers.

He adds that a think tank in any capacity should evaluate or generate a policy by analyzing it technically, theoretically and also tactically through a clear and good research methodology, and eventually come up with options and scenarios of policies. "This is so that the council of ministers and house of peoples' representatives can see all the options and scenarios available and come up with a better policy instrument."

In terms of successfully influencing public policy, Melaku opines that there are few things that should be done and few opportunities that need to be seized in order to promote the TTs role.

He suggests a mechanism that would serve as bridge between the research and studies that are undertaken by various think tank institutions, and the government policymakers to be setup. The mechanism could be

established at government, media or at any public institution level. However, there needs to be a way or bridge where the policy studies and researches end up at the hands of the relevant bodies instead of bookshelves, Melaku underscores.

Melaku also recommends an association of think tanks to be setup in order to boost their capabilities. "If we are able to link our TTs with other government bodies, like we are trying to do between our universities and the industry sector, I believe they can play their role in supporting socio-economic development."

He also makes a point on how the government should further strengthen the support it gives to the sector, whether it is in terms of financial support or at policy level. Investors, the media and other stakeholders can also a play a role.

Dr. Constantinos, for his part notes that TTs function well and better in a democratic environment, when they are free to exercise their rights, so that they become audacious in deliberating and proposing alternative policies. "So with this in mind, the government should come up with a white paper (policy paper) to promote think tanks."

Going forward, there are opportunities within the sector that need to be seized to better develop and promote the role of think tanks.

Melaku notes that in relation to the tremendous rise in higher education institutions, the number of educated people that can contribute in research and study entering into the workforce is getting huge, which will have implication in the thriving of think tanks in the country.

Also, he said that despite the minimal level of influence, "The researches made on foreign policy by EFRSSI, and the one done on good governance by PSRC for instance will eventually gain traction and have influence."

Recently, PSRC announced that it has conducted and delivered 17 strategic studies in four thematic areas; which include industrial development, urban development, agricultural modernization and good governance, to the relevant bodies in 2016 alone.

Nevertheless, for Melaku, the potential role of think tanks should be further highlighted by all the relevant bodies, including the media, especially in the context of the country's socio-economic development and growing diplomatic clout at the international stage.

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