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Think tanks are key for our democracy

By Edwin Wanjawa | March 12th 2021

Many Kenyans are familiar with the face, maybe not the brilliance, of David Ndii.  Dr Ndii, an economist, columnist and author, is described by The Telegraph as "one of Africa’s best known economists and an outspoken anti-corruption crusader". An alumni of the University of Nairobi, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. For several years, he was chief strategist of NASA.

Today, he is a leading critic of BBI and a leading light at Linda Katiba. One of his most explosive treatises on the Kenyan body politic was his view, a few years ago, that the Kenyan experiment had so fundamentally failed and it would be of great economic value if sections of the country seceded. The jury is still out on that.

I don’t wish to discuss Ndii. I don’t qualify. However, I cite him as a microcosm of what we refer to today as “Think Tanks”. The definition of a think tank has been contested since the study of think tanks took off in the 1980s and 1990s.

What most scholars will agree on is that policy expertise is think tanks’ main output that they seek to influence policymakers and the wider public, and that they try to do so via informal and formal channels and by making use of their well-connected position in often transnational policy networks encompassing political parties, interest groups, corporations, international organisations, civil society organisations and civil service bureaucracies.

The analysis of the roles of think tanks in the policy process raises many questions, but those on power and influence are perhaps most salient: Are think tanks most influential as agenda-setters? Or are they at their best when it comes to policy analysis and formulation? Do think tanks also influence policy implementation and policy evaluation?

The difficulties associated with attempts to answer these questions are not unique to think tanks. However, fully grasping the role of think tanks in the policy process could be more complex and riddled with obstacles than understanding the roles of other policy actors such as lobbying firms, political parties, businesses, civil service, media, academia, and campaigning organisations.

So, what are think tanks good for? Think tanks are good for influence peddling, in the best sense of the term. Whereas one could question the tactics and motivations behind how and who think tanks influence, the bottom line is that they are in the business of pushing for change through ideas and networks. The litmus test of a good think tank is not which side of the political aisle it leans but whether it proposes evidence-based discussion. In view of this, think tanks exist to mobilise expertise and ideas to influence the policy-making process.

However, serving as a catalyst for ideas is only one aspect of the role that the best think tanks play. Another essential role is helping to set the policy agenda. Yet, getting on the policy agenda is a complicated task. Even the best think tanks miss key opportunities to translate a persuasive idea into reality.

Successful think tanks keep their proposals at the ready and when a problem emerges, they jump into action. Having good ideas is not enough as ideas do not drive policy changes by themselves, they must be coupled with more conventional political forces. To be successful, think tanks need to have enough resources and persistence to cultivate an idea as they wait for the right moment to mobilise an alliance of supporters around it.

There is a flip-side to the unpredictability of the policy process, which is that good ideas do not always win out. There have been instances when ideologically-driven think tanks supported misguided ideas that shaped how governments understood the world, assessed their options, and acted to great detriment.

As evidence suggests, think tanks are at their worst when they are narrowly ideological and consistently generate predictable findings on any question despite evidence to the contrary. Think tanks that demonstrate such behaviour should be discounted. However, experts and policymakers can be susceptible to actively avoiding and ignoring information that contradicts their beliefs. One of the best ways to avoid this confirmation bias is to expose people to opposing views and invite them to defend their own.

2021 and 2022 will be pivotal years for Kenya. With the expected referendum and elections, this will be years of action for Kenyans where these important policy and political processes will culminate in important decisions that will shape the course of action on issues ranging from the economy, debt burden, financial management, political governance, fighting corruption, job creation, national integration and cohesion, shared prosperity, regional integration, international peace and security, to climate change, and global development and think tanks need to play a constructive role.

Mr Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University

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