By Sileshi Yilma Reta ( Sileshi Yilma Reta ([email protected]) is interested in the areas of media, communication and politics. )
Think tanks, the “bridge between knowledge and power” as defined by the United Nations (UN), are instrumental in public policy formulations and analysis.
Think tanks have a unique role in helping governments and corporations understand and make informed decisions on topics ranging from the domestic level up to international magnitude.
Anyone planning to discuss the issue of think tanks may find the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report very relevant.
Prepared by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, the Index is very popular in the industry. According to its latest report, the United States and Europe dominate the top ranking think tanks.
Under the top think tanks in the sub-Saharan Africa category that enlisted 95 think tanks, only eight are found in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Development Research Institute (10th), the Ethiopian Economic Association (17th), the Organization for Social Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (20th), and the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (49th) are the four ranked highest of the eight think tanks.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (70th), the Environmental Economics Policy Forum for Ethiopia (82th), the Institute of Security Studies (85th), and the Economic and Social Policy Institute/The Horn (93rd) are the other think tanks part of the list.
For there is scarce resource on the subject matter of think tanks, it is hard to be sure about the number and types of think tanks that operate in Ethiopia. The 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, however, indicates that there are 25 think tanks in the country.
It is not clear, at least for me, who grants the license for such entities to function or what criteria they should fulfil to be eligible in Ethiopia.
Is there any legal framework to refer to? Are they considered as civil society organisations or are there any kinds of limitation on the themes (areas of expertise) that are allowed and prohibited for think tanks in Ethiopia? I think many people crave to know the answers to these questions.
Whenever I think of think tanks in Ethiopia, the Forum for Social Studies (FSS) and the Inter-Africa Group (IAG) immediately come to my mind.
I am not sure about the current status of IAG, which played a leading role in arranging debate platforms for political parties in the highly contested national election of Ethiopia in 2005.
FSS, on its part, has been very popular in disseminating various research outcomes and dialogue platforms, which I have enjoyed on numerous occasions.
Another example can be the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS), which was established a few years back and conducts monthly discussions on various topics. I am not sure if EAS considers itself as a typical think tank though.
Other organisations in Ethiopia which may enter the league of think tanks may include the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies (formerly known as the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development), the Policy Study Research Centre, the Justice and Legal System Research Institute, and the Centre for Research, Dialogue and Cooperation.
I also recall reading on social media a few months back the establishment of the Tigray Policy Implementation Research and the Study Think Tank.
I would like to caution that the list is not exhaustive. And once again I am not sure if the various think tanks fulfil the acceptable standards of think tanks. Whatever the case on the ground, however, the invaluable contribution of think tanks is not debatable.
The need to embrace think tanks emanates from the actual reality at home as well as abroad. Problems of corruption and good governance are obviously a huge challenge for Ethiopia, let alone outside observers. The government has also repeatedly admitted that these setbacks are challenging the country’s progress.
Poverty remains to be an impediment. The issues of democracy and freedom of expression are other areas which are in short supply.
Ethiopia has also recently witnessed widespread public unrests in various parts of the nation. The on and off ethnic tensions in different regions of the country are worrisome.
One has not to forget that the State of Emergency is still active. There are also other impediments that the country is facing with regards to social, economic as well as political arenas.
The issues of human rights violations and the challenges in the justice system require serious attention. What is more, Ethiopia is located in the very volatile region of the Horn of Africa, which is overwhelmed by a vicious cycle of war, violence, hunger, as well as drought.
The region is also considered as a breeding ground for terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab. Furthermore, the migration and refugee crises are another headache.
There are also always changing global realities that Ethiopia cannot ignore or distance itself from. A recent example can be the Gulf crisis. How should Ethiopia react to this crisis?
In general, there seems to be a deficiency of bright and innovative ideas in almost all venues of life in the country. All these and other factors lead to the timely need for local-based vibrant think tanks which can settle the dust and the information overload, analyse events and come up with useful remedies. Governments alone can no longer be able to handle the global dynamic phenomena. Think tanks should come into play in this regard.
Think tanks are not luxuries but a matter of necessity for Ethiopia. At a time when critical national issues are engulfing the country, and international crises are escalating in different parts of the globe, better ideas and research are the means that think tanks can provide adequately.
Instead of serving a special interest, think tanks should be established, I strongly believe, to rescue weak institutions and nations who are on the wrong track. Their role should be broad, and they have to be visionary with long lasting dreams and aspirations.
Think tanks may have their agenda. I do not believe there is anything wrong with that. There are also think tanks worldwide affiliated with higher educational institutions or even governments. Their stage of development may work for such kinds of attachments.
However, having an excessive number of think tanks which are closely associated with governments or party lines will not be of much use. They have to be alternative voices, not echo chambers.
Probably with few exceptions, close observations of the majority of institutions which are directly funded by the government do not have the courage to criticise their funder. They may not also be seen as being alternative sources of policies and strategies. They often echo what the government wants to hear. Their credibility in the public’s eye is questionable.
Think tanks will be meaningless if they become tools of governments or party apparatus. They have to be established independently and base their analysis and solutions provided on scientific research. They have to challenge what they believe is wrong and socially undesirable.
Claiming that think tanks should not affiliate with government or ruling parties does not suggest that they can have an easy ride with opposition parties. They have to detach themselves from these entities as well.
If think tanks simply echo the one in power or populist views, then they may lose their value as critical sources of alternative voices.
Concluding that there are no think tanks affiliated with governments would become naivety. Indeed, there are many of them, and it works in some other places of the world. However, in places like Ethiopia where polarisation and enmity characterise political currencies, affiliation would be an obstacle to having an independent and critical opinion.
Although it is pivotal to consider the experiences and good practices of think tanks in the rest of the world, it would be preferable if Ethiopian think tanks can come up with their model that embraces indigenous knowledge.
Working with the mainstream and social media to disseminate their ideas, suggestions, consultancy services and research findings as well as engage with the public is another area they can seriously think of.
Both those who are already established and the ones in the pipeline do have a huge potential and ample opportunity to work with the local media.
For the past several years I have observed that a significant amount of columns of local publications is dominated by foreign pundits, mostly, by articles provided by Project Syndicates.
Working to enhance the playground for the growth of responsible think tanks should not be a matter of choice. Rather, it should become a necessity.
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