Dessalegn RahmatoForum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Readers may question whether think tanks as described in this article exist in Ethiopia or not. The point is indeed subject to debate, however even those who may argue that they do indeed exist will grant that they are negligible in number and influence.
On the other hand, I believe the Forum for Social Studies does qualify as a think tank. FSS describes itself as the first independent think tank in the country. Its main objective is to undertake in-depth research on issues of development and social change in Ethiopia and to provide a public forum for the discussion of such issues. While its special focus of research is development problems, the goal of its undertakings is to inform policy planners and to contribute to the improvement of the policy process.
Over the last five to six years, a number of civic organizations have been established in the country, among which are NGOs, professional associations and public support institutions. It is thus apparent that since the fall of the Derg civil society institutions are slowly emerging, though Ethiopia compares very poorly in this regard with many of the countries in the rest of Africa. According to CRDA sources, there were over 250 NGOs operating in the country in 1997, of which 152 were members of that umbrella organization. While the larger and more resource-endowed NGOs have their headquarters in Europe and North America, more than half the total number is of local origin. Many of the local NGOs, as well as some of the professional associations, are resource-poor and limited in their scope of activities. A few of the civic organizations that have emerged in this period have certain characteristics that resemble those of think tanks but some of them are not engaged in policy-relevant research, and others lack a programme of public education.
The objectives of think tanks in Ethiopia should be no different from those in the rest of Africa, although there will be differences in priorities and methods of operation due to differences in political culture and historical tradition. Policy researchers here have a number of very important but very difficult tasks awaiting them. First, they should make all efforts to convince the government that it should seek independent opinion.
The tradition among successive governments in this country has been to marginalize independent opinion. Decision-makers always turn to government experts whenever there is a need for information, analysis, and similar work having to do with the drafting, formulation or evaluation of policy initiatives. This is, if you will, an incestuous exercise: the government is merely talking and listening to itself, and as a consequence foregoes the benefits of the diversity of ideas and options that independent opinion would have offered. Secondly, think tanks should help create a tradition of dialogue among researchers, the public and decision-makers.
Thirdly, policy researchers should pursue innovative ideas and approaches in all their undertakings. They should learn to tackle old problems in new ways, to rewrite the terms of the policy debate, and to provoke a healthy and wide-ranging debate. I believe we need more think tanks with more diverse objectives in this country. The greater independent opinion intervenes in the policy process, the greater the chances for the democratization of decision-making.
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