Agency For Transformation

Why Think Tanks are key to transforming Uganda to First World

Few months ago Uganda launched 2040 Vision. The document is imaginative but weak on benchmark drivers to achieving an integrated first world economy by 2040. For example, the role of knowledge is not clearly articulated. In all developed nations on earth, Think tanks are bedrocks of knowledge agenda. You see, these Think tanks are public-policy research analysis and engagement organizations that generate policy oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, which enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues. Such Think tanks may be affiliated or independent institutions and are structured as permanent bodies, not ad hoc commissions. These institutions often act as a bridge between the academic and policy-making communities and between states and civil society, serving in the public interest as independent voices that translate applied and basic research into a language and form that is understandable, reliable, and accessible for policymakers and the public.

James McGann (2012), argues that the potential of think tanks to support and sustain democratic governments and civil society is far from exhausted. Today policymakers and civil society throughout the developed and the developing world face the common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear on government decision-making. The challenge is to harness the vast reservoir of knowledge, information and associational energy that exists in public policy research organizations in every region of the world for public good – You see; McGann makes an important point because knowledge is increasingly an international commodity that spans physical and metaphysical boundaries. Indeed learning and knowledge are the key ingredients that hydrate the process of transformation. Recently, key ideas that shaped the 2012 campaigns in United States were cooked in strategy rooms of major Think tanks like Brookings Institution and Center for American Progress. In Uganda, we seem to be playing a catch up game. The 2012 Global Go-To Think Tank Index shows that progress is happening in Uganda. For example, the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC) was ranked the best Think tank in Uganda, followed by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), and Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) respectively. ACODE was further ranked 25th among the top 50 Think Tanks in Africa. MISR was further ranked 37th among the top 50 think tanks in Africa. And out of the 75 Think Tanks with the Best Advocacy Campaign, ACODE was ranked 38th and MISR 69th. ACODE was also ranked 17th globally among the top Think Tanks with the Best Policy Report Produced during 2011-2012. Perhaps, what we need to interrogate is whether government institutions and wider public are piggybacking information and knowledge from these think tanks to strengthen public policy and service delivery in Uganda. Quite often, these think tanks face a dilemma in of demonstrating ability for brutal independence. In many countries, phantom Think Tanks are mushrooming, where governments create think tanks that are designed to appear to be non-governmental organizations but are in fact arms of the government. Likewise, opposition parties, corporations and individuals have established think tanks to promote their special and particularistic interests. This trend raises concerns about a lack of transparency and private interest masquerading as public interest. Are Think tanks in Uganda ready to overcome this temptation?

The other challenge for think tanks is to produce timely and accessible policy-oriented research that effectively engages policymakers, the press and the public on the critical issues facing a country. Gone are the days when a think tank could operate with the motto “research it, write it and they will find it.” Today, think tanks must be lean, mean, policy machines. The Economist described “good think tanks” as those organizations that are able to combine “intellectual depth, political influence, and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings, and a streak of eccentricity.” Uganda- we still have a lot to learn along this transformation journey.

Morrison Rwakakamba
Chief Executive Officer
Agency for Transformation