When a nation is having so many challenges, it is important to think about how to make use of available resources- human and material- to solve its problems. It is almost becoming a culture or a badge of reference for our politicians to go to Chatham House, London, on the invitation to talk about their political party’s manifesto, discuss pre-election campaign issues and deliver speeches about why elections have to be postponed.
Why go to London when there are think tanks all over the place in Nigeria? But most of the think tanks in the country appear to be quiet. Most Nigerians can’t feel the impact of think tanks in matters concerning nation-building. What is happening in think tanks which are established to provide firepower for our national, regional and global policies? State-run think tanks are institutions where agenda-setting, research and brilliant ideas should always emerge.
The “articulatory infrastructure” of the Nigerian State should “make some noise” on matters of national interest. Their voices in matters of national interest will be measured by how they sustain their decibel in national and global discourses such that ideas generated by these brokers of great ideas can become consensus.
Think tanks act as brokers of policy knowledge, centres of research, and incubators of ideas
I learnt that the first time the idea was presented to establish ECOWAS, it was from the four walls of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Through brilliant ideas of foreign affairs experts at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) and then the Ministry of External Affairs, Nigeria played a key role in the intensive diplomatic efforts that saw the birth of ECOWAS in 1975.
A think tank is a body of experts providing ideas and advice on specific economic, political and technological issues. A group of interdisciplinary scientists and experts in various fields of endeavour whose main objective is to provide advice on a diverse range of policy issues through the use of specialized knowledge.
Think tanks act as brokers of policy knowledge, centres of research, and incubators of ideas. As brokers, they channel knowledge between scholars, policymakers and civil society. As applied researchers, think tanks convert theories and empirics into insights and recommendations packaged to meet decision-makers needs.
Depending on one’s perspective, think tanks either enrich the democratic system through policy research, developing policy options and facilitating public debate or undermine democracy by pushing policies favoured by powerful corporate interests. In young democracies and emerging economies such as Nigeria, think tanks can play a pivotal role as reform leaders.
They catalyse change by raising awareness of key economic issues, initiating discussion, and showing policymakers a way forward. Their expertise and leadership can strengthen and mobilize civil society. Instead of providing the wrong prescriptions to treat policy symptoms, think tanks uncover the underlying causes of problems in order to recommend reforms that are workable.
Besides attitudinal change which is not negotiable, we equally need the ideas of brilliant men and women if the nation wants to carry out reforms. We have think tanks in the country that are not optimally used by politicians and policymakers to solve our numerous economic, political and technological challenges. I strongly feel that we are not making optimal use of these research institutions that have been established to play vital roles in making, influencing and shaping global, regional and national policies.
“It must be part of the Nigerian tragedy that the first generation of Nigerian leaders established and got NIIA, for instance, to be known globally but only for the current generation to not even know why a NIIA was considered a crucial component of independence and nation building.”
We have new ministers who have just been appointed to advise the government on various issues affecting the country. Rather than seeking relevance and fine-tuning their policies using in-house “think tanks” like the NIIA, Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), National Defence College Centre for Strategic Research and Studies, Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER), Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) among numerous other private and state-owned think tanks that are Nigeria-centric, we look outside often.
Is this not demeaning? If this is not demeaning after over 60 years of political Independence and reflecting what some scholars call “colonial mentality”, then one wonders what this is when politicians have to go to Chatham House to declare to the world that the election has been postponed. Think tanks will be very useful to generate new ideas and visions that will improve various sectors of the economy.
Our policymakers should have a rethink. The engine room of ideas in any country, according to a public intellectual, are think tanks, especially those privately funded, and a civil service filled with brilliant people at all levels, constantly asking questions, constantly analysing and constantly proposing brilliant ideas to Ministers who trust and also work closely with their civil servants.
In my view, more think tanks are better for democracy. But as a scholar once said: “Think thanks are all about influence. They are not, as much as they pretend to be, neutral ivory towers that undertake entirely value-free research and value-free advice…. Think tanks help their case by presenting themselves as neutral academics …… Domestic or foreign funders, nobody hands over money to think tanks without wanting something in return. They all want something.”
Could it be the crisis of funding that is affecting the invisible nature of these brokers of great ideas? Funding plays a crucial part in helping these think tanks. How can they generate brilliant ideas when there is a lack of financial support? They need to be well-funded. Think tanks, however, should be transparent and must not be under unnecessary pressure to accept funding that may impinge on their intellectual and political independence.
In as much as think tanks make positive contributions to debates and decision-making processes in the country, they should avoid what scholars refer to as “idea laundering”. We strongly believe that the time is ripe to put these engine rooms of great ideas back to work. Thank you.