On April 6-8, 2015, the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the University of Pennsylvania and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) organized the Second Africa Think Tanks Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The main objective was to offer an opportunity for Africa’s think tanks to take a step back and consider the implications of the new dynamism taking place in the continent on the nature and content of their work.
One of the critical issues in the agenda of the Summit was to reflect on how Africa’s think tanks can best support Africa’s development priorities as reflected in the 2063 Agenda and Africa’s position in shaping the post-2015 agenda.
The post-2015 SDGs and Africa’s Agenda 2063 are aspirational goals stretching into the long term, leaving countries with space to seek their own paths. While the SDGs are global, Africa’s Agenda 2063 is the continent’s common vision, laying out an African-centered agenda, breaking from the past where development thinking on the continent was shaped by non-African agendas.
Within this framework, African think tanks can play a critical role as organizations designed for and capable of long-term thinking and reflection. Here, the transformation of Africa should be central to think tank agendas, helping the governments of the continent better position Africa in relation to the world, by offering bold ideas, optimism about the future, and changing the prevailing pessimistic impressions about the continent.
Insights offered by Summit participants covered some practical aspects of this scenario:
- Not all actors, both in Government and civil society, are fully aware of Agenda 2063 and its importance in shaping Africa’s future. Many perceive that it was prepared as a top-down effort from the African Union with little “grassroot” relevance. Think tanks have a role to play in moving Agenda 2063 out of the confines of the African Union, and helping to ensure that all Africans embrace it as a common vision. These actors can also help institutions assess the capacity Africa requires for its development over the coming years. Finally, they can formulate strategies and other conceptual entry points to promote the vision’s success.
- Think tanks could strategize how best to bring women and youth to the center stage in discussions regarding the future of the continent. They can look into the role of technology, and how to maximize its benefits for society. Think tanks can assess future leadership capacities- transforming educational paradigms to propel the country’s development forward, and the skills for achieving greater leaps in technology.
- While acknowledging the challenges faced by policy makers, who must navigate competing policy needs, think tanks could also address the demands of policy development. Think Tanks could extend their target audiences beyond formal policy makers to reach other critical decision-makers and agenda setters – informal leaders in the public sphere, private sector and the broader civil society. Ultimately the nation’s citizens are the voters who keep political parties in power. To bring civil society to the table, think tanks need to speak in a language the people understand, and help them appreciate the value of think tanks to the national development efforts as both influencers and catalysts of public opinion.
- When people do not understand their institutions, they will not benefit from them. Rather than reinforcing values and institutional constructs brought in from colonial times, African think tanks could lead in articulating an African approach and viewpoint, to help shape African institutions around an African cultural identity.
The vision of Agenda 2063 should be an aspiration that corresponds to an ambition and opportunity for think tanks. Think tanks could aim to liberate the African people to ‘think big.’ However, for such a liberation, think tanks need to define the transformative proposal with clarity, taking advantage of the major trends to help provide a thorough understanding of the agenda.