New dispensation: Part One…rethinking ‘think tanks’ for value addition

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THE concept of think tanks is neither new nor inimical to Zimbabwe.
It is as old as time.
The God of all time is heard consulting as early as pre-creation times.
Does he not say to those around him: “Let us create man in our own image?”
Isn’t this tantamount to seeking opinion, acknowledgement and/or the endorsement of his plan?
The African governance system has been built around think tanks since time immemorial.
The understanding that: “Chara chimwe hachitswanyi inda,” or “Rume rimwe harikombi churu,” has always been a given operational philosophy.
To date, our chiefs don’t govern by unilateral propensities; they consult their makururukota (wise elders) for direction. The African Religion in its entirety is based on consultation of our ancestors, hierarchical spiritual entities, territorial spirits and spirit mediums.
It is in this spirit that age is valued because Africans correctly believe that it comes with wisdom gathered over time through experience.
That consultation is the hallmark of wise choice requires no further elucidation.
What needs stressing, though, is the fact that any such consultation must be wisely directed.
You cannot just consult anyone who comes across your way. You consult those whose informed opinion you value.
You consult think tanks.
Hence this article explains why it is important to re-think think tanks for value addition (in all spheres of development) in Zimbabwe’s new dispensation.
Who is a think tank?
The original meaning of think tank was quite literal.
It meant ‘brain’.
However, the current meaning refers to a body of experts or a research organisation providing advice and ideas on specific national or commercial problems.
Think tanks are of various hues.
They can be independent, private, non-partisan, non-profit research organisations or public organisations whose goal is to influence Government policy-making or implementation. Think-tanks are therefore a group of experts brought together, usually by a Government or business enterprise, to develop ideas on a particular subject and to make suggestions for action.
In a sense, they are commissioned to undertake intensive study and research into specified problems with a view to coming up with an appropriate intervention.
Brief history of think tanks
The term ‘think tank’ was first used in military jargon during the so-called Second World War to describe a safe place where plans and strategies could be discussed. Its meaning began to change during the 1960s when it came to be used in the US to describe private non-profit policy research organisations.
It has been proposed that the first think tank was the socialist Fabian Society, founded in Great Britain in the late 19th Century, which sought to influence the country’s public policy.
For many years, the majority of scholars studying think tanks considered them a uniquely American phenomenon that boomed in the US because of the perceived exceptionality of its political system and its rich tradition of private, rather than public, funding which benefitted think tanks.
The organisations have also flourished, however, in other industrialised countries, such as Canada, the UK and Australia, where, normally, they have tended to be fewer in number and less well-funded than those in the US.
In the early 21st Century, more than half the world’s think tanks were in Europe and North America.
European think tanks vary considerably.
In Germany, for example, large, influential think tanks exist, but they are often state funded and associated with political parties or universities.
In France, organisations similar to think-tanks are related to the Government in Paris and have a conflictual but subordinate relationship with political parties.
In southern Europe, think tanks began to appear in the 1970s. Research on think tanks outside the Western world indicates that an even greater variety of organisations may exist globally.
Role of think tanks
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.
Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” (Keynes, 1936)
These organisations have a number of common characteristics.
First is their policy focus, which means their objective is to bring knowledge and policy making together by informing and, if possible, influencing the policy process.
Think tanks conduct and recycle research that aims to solve policy problems and not solely to advance the theoretical debate.
The second common characteristic is public purpose, which refers to the reason for the existence of think tanks.
Most think tanks claim that they conduct research to inform the public and the government on how to improve public policy.
Their rhetoric often claims that their work is for the common good and to educate the public.
Third, the expertise and professionalism of their research staffs are the key intellectual resources of think tanks and a way of legitimising their findings.
Finally, the key activities of think tanks are usually research analysis and advice, which come in the form of publications, conferences, seminars and workshops.
Think tanks in India
India is credited with having the widest range of think tanks in South Asia.
It also is fourth, globally, in the number of think tanks. Though some Indian think tanks, for example, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) were established before India’s independence in 1947, the early post-independence ones were close to Government and had a strong impact on policy.
For example, Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, founder of ISI, was instrumental in the production of the blueprint for India’s Second Five-year Plan.
Their mission could be as generic as ‘need for economic research ‘(IEG) or ‘the need to build a body of knowledge by undertaking comparative and cross-disciplinary research on social processes, goals and policies’.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the birth of think tanks working on environment and sustainable development and a genre of grass roots level, action-based think tanks emerged, perhaps because international funding agencies believed that policy goals would be better delivered through involvement of civil society and gave increasing importance to considering local realities.
Economic reforms in India, starting 1991, saw the birth of action-based think tanks which supported social movements against globalisation and its symbols, such as big dams, multi-national corporations, special economic zones and land acquisitions, among others.
Other think tanks were set up to counter their actions and promote research in the cause of the Government’s policies.
A 2011 report speaks about India’s vibrant landscape of think tanks capable of engaging with critical research.
Think tanks’ autonomy remains largely intact in India, because it is a democracy and presents an environment that respects dissent and multiple view-points.

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