The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Weighing around 1.4 kilograms, with billions of nerve cells, it is the source of our thoughts and actions. Without it, meaningful life cannot exist.
“Think tanks are to a country what the brain is to the body”. Just like the brain is dedicated to receiving and processing information, countries need institutions dedicated to making sense of the local and global environments, and recommending the most appropriate responses. Professor Stephen Adei of Accra, Ghana likens a country without think tanks to a human being without a brain.
What are think tanks?
The term, “think tank” was given to the secure places that American military and civilian experts met to strategize during World War II. Later, the term was applied to contract researchers that did work for the military. In the 1960s, its usage expanded to describe experts who formulated policy recommendations. By the 1970s, it included those engaged in political, economic and social issues.
Think tank expert, Dr. James G. McGann of the Lauder Institute defines them as, “Public policy research analysis and engagement organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy”. They also legitimize government or party policies, and provide a space for debate.
Think tanks are dedicated quality collective thinking centers that scan the local and global environments, analyze trends, forecast and make recommendations to policy and decision makers.
Leaders of developed countries depend a lot on information coming out of think tanks in making decisions. Therefore they encourage the development of think tank capacity outside government – in academia, independent institutes and organizations – to complement and challenge official think tanks. No individual leader – let alone busy politician – can do this all this alone.
Think Tanks in emerging countries
In almost all the emerging economies of the last seventy years, the first significant action of visionary leadership was the creation of robust, intellectually autonomous national think tank capacity either in institutes such as the Korean Development Institute (KDI), or as stand-alone units of the public sector such as the National Economic Bureaus in many East Asian countries. Think tanks helped in crafting national vision, elaborating the agenda, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, and making corrective actions. They were essential in anticipating policy shifts and guiding leadership in taking timely action.
East Asian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Park Chung-hee of South Korea remained fresh with ideas and guided their countries through quality development policies while many African leaders of their time floundered and gradually became dysfunctional. One major reason was that the visions of these leaders were adopted by capable and trusted think tanks that supported the prosecution of national agenda. In other words, these leaders enlarged their capacity by borrowing the minds of the best thinkers and researchers in the country. These indigenous think tanks in turn borrowed ideas from others’ experiences, which they contextualized for national application.
“Development is knowledge and thinking intensive“. A country may receive advice from external sources but just as the brain of a third person cannot be borrowed wholesale, neither can national think tank capacity.
Think Tanks in Africa
Africa still trails the world in the presence of think tanks. The lack of adequate think tank capacity has been a major constraint on the development of African countries. Since Independence there are has been a dearth of independent thinking at the national level in most African countries. The result has been blind following of the development roads paved by others. In the process, ready-made development recipes from abroad, like Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) have been followed without regard to local situations or the aspirations of the people affected.
The experience of the developed world and the more recent experiences of East Asian nations show that both state and non-state indigenous think tanks have crucial roles in improving the planning frameworks to translate development aspirations and priorities into concrete results.
The development of Africa requires more state and non-state think tanks both as sources of new ideas and research, and as alternate sources of thinking about development vision, agenda, policies, and programs.
Preparing for African Futures
According to World Population Review, Africa is the only continent where the population is projected to keep increasing throughout the 21st century. In the next thirty years (by 2050), the continent’s population will double in size from its current 1.2 billion people to 2.4 billion. Its under-18 population will increase by two thirds to reach almost 1 billion.
America in the nineteenth century, and China and the Asian sub-continent in the first half of the twentieth, also experienced rapid population growth. The difference with the African experience is that it is happening at a time of the most rapid global socio-economic and political changes ever, and from a rural unskilled population base.
Moreover, there is large-scale migration to urban areas. By 2030 fifty percent of Africans will be living in cities, compared to 36 percent in 2010. Africa’s population of potentially productive youth will be the highest in the world. These factors can lead to economic growth and transformation, at par with or even better than experienced in China and other East Asian countries.
However, without focused thinking, leadership foresight, and long-term planning, this population bulge could steer the continent further into increased inequality, urban poverty, the proliferation of slums, and even social chaos worse than the ‘Arab Spring’.
For Africa’s preferred future, much thinking and planning is crucial from leadership at all levels. This cannot be left to chance, to outsiders with their own agendas, or even to a few individuals. Indigenous think tanks have a pivotal role.