Think tanks: vital but overlooked?

Think tanks may get a bad rap around Washington for being partisan and/or corporate tools, but a column in The East African argues that local think tanks in developing countries deserve more donor support:

As Ghana’s growth reaches double digits, the Institute of Economic Affairs – a flourishing Accra-based think tank – is working closely with policymakers to ensure that the country’s fledgling oil industry becomes a positive force for development.

In Ghana’s last election, the Institute organised lively presidential and vice presidential debates and deployed election monitors across the country.

In neighbouring Benin, only two-thirds of children enrol in primary school, and only half those children complete their primary education.

But one small programme is leading to real change. By establishing local education councils, the Institute of Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE) gives community leaders the chance to work directly with local government to agree schooling priorities and decide how budgets are spent.

Rigorous research into what works will then be fed into the national government’s new framework for education – helping ensure that more children in Benin get the education they deserve.

Across Africa, thriving local think tanks are beginning to make a difference by giving local research an increasingly influential place in policymaking processes.

The piece is by Marie-Claude Martin of the International Development Research Centre’s Think Tank Initiative, which supports local think tanks in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. The Open Society Institute runs a similar Think Tank Fund focused on Central and Eastern Europe. If anyone knows of other programs like these, please chime in below.

My broader takeaway: In trying to find local solutions to development problems, we focus too much on how to adapt policies and institutions from developed countries. We would have more success if we instead focused on who does the adapting — or even better, let them forget about adapting and just pursue whatever makes sense in their context. Supporting local think tanks creates capacity for this within local civil society, balancing the government and donor dominance of the policy debate.

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UPDATE: This recent piece by Ajoy Datta takes a closer look at the roles played by think tanks and the politics behind their history outside the US.