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African think-tanks: practical solutions to practical problems

African think-tanks: practical solutions to practical problems

Until a decade or even less ago, African think-tanks were very thin on the ground. The situation has now changed and several world-class African think-tanks have come to the fore. Some of Africa’s most brilliant analytical minds, having gained invaluable experience in the international arena, are returning home to lead the intellectual charge for Africa’s transformation. We take a close look at some of the leading African think-tanks in this report compiled by Neil Ford.

The African continent has traditionally hosted far fewer think-tanks than other parts of the world. Think-tanks are independent policy research institutions that seek to influence government policy and can play a vital role in the political and socio-economic life of a nation. Yet the past five years has seen a big increase in the number of African think-tanks, suggesting a far greater interest in governance, policy and the formulation of African solutions to African problems.

Many people within and without the continent are understandably impressed by the strong levels of economic growth that have been recorded in so many African economies in recent years. Some regard this as merely a function of booming commodity prices; while others believe that the continent’s economic fortunes have finally turned for the better and are set to follow the lead set by Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The truth lies somewhere in between. There has been an economic dividend from the ending of the Cold War and the resulting, gradual dissipation of many armed conflicts on the continent.

At the same time, an end to strict IMF-inspired structural adjustment policies and a focus on poverty reduction have resulted in a more intelligent approach to economic development that recognises that sometimes state control is best; sometimes private sector competition is most effective; and perhaps most often, that public-private partnership is the best option.

In short, the theory of one-development-size-fits-all applied largely and almost exclusively to Africa, has been shown up to be absurd and abandoned by most intelligent thinkers on the continent. Africa, as the people of the continent have had to repeat ad nauseam, is not one country but a very eclectic collection of 54.

What works in one country will not necessarily work in the other 53. Chances are that it will not. The world of international business has found this out the hard way and taken many bloody noses before the obvious sank in – you have to treat each country on its own if you hope to succeed. There is no substitute for local knowledge applied to universal principles.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented period of economic growth has coincided with the shift of momentum towards Africans taking more control of their own economic, political and social destinies.

Yet more is required if this period of improvement is to be sustained in the longer term and indeed converted into a full-scale boom. Further improvements in governance, infrastructure and education are required if the continent’s economic base is to be widened, much-needed employment created and living standards improved.

This has led to the creation of many new think-tanks to consider exactly how this momentum can be sustained, both in theory and in practice. Yaw Ansu, the chief economist at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), says: “When ACET began researching, talking about, and convening events on economic transformation in Africa in 2010, we were one of the very few.”

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