Governments work best when their policies are based on sound research. In the United States and other developed countries, there is a wealth of universities and think tanks to provide it. But not so in most developing countries, where a lack of funding and a resulting brain drain make strong research programs a rarity.

To remedy this problem, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have announced $30 million in grants to twenty-four independent policy think tanks in East and West Africa. The three donors have committed a total of $90 million to what they intend to be a long-term commitment to this African initiative.

The funds are part of a total of $100 million over ten years that the Hewlett Board of Directors approved in 2006 for work to support think tanks in the developing world.

IDRC, which is managing the grants for the funders, received nearly 300 proposals from a wide range of African think tanks that focus on broad national, social, and economic policy issues. Following a rigorous review process, twenty-four think tanks were selected from eleven East and West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Effort Launched in May

The donor partners announced the Think Tank Initiative in May during the annual meetings of the African Development Bank, where executive directors of think tanks from Senegal and Tanzania selected to receive funds joined a news conference to announce the grants.

“The value of providing think tanks with enduring, long-term support cannot be overstated,” said Rohinton Medhora, IDRC’s vice president of programs. “Predictable core funding gives institutions the certainty and continuity they need to build skills that can lead to path-breaking work and constructive public policy influence.”

Abdoulaye Diagne, the executive director of Senegal’s Consortium pour la recherche économique et sociale, added that the funding would support not only research but also communications work to ensure that the findings reach government policymakers and other crucial audiences.

Linda Frey, the program officer overseeing the think tank grants for the Hewlett Foundation, says linking the research to policymakers is critical to the long-term success of the Initiative.

“Academics don’t necessarily think about how to convey their findings to policymakers,” Frey says. “To address that, we’re helping these institutions think through what they need to do to make sure their research is relevant and accessible. Part of the answer is to engage policymakers up front to get buy-in and make sure researchers are asking the right questions.”

Frey says the Think Tank Initiative is envisioned as an investment that will last more than ten years. For the first five years, IDRC has made a commitment of $10 million, while the Hewlett and Gates foundations have committed $40 million each. Ultimately, she says, they hope to extend this initiative to selected countries throughout the world.

To track progress, Frey says, the funders will consider three fundamental facets of the grants: the quality of research; whether the work is linked to policy; and the health of the grantee institution (for example, its reductions in staff turnover and its ability to attract new sources of general operating support).

Homegrown Research Has Advantages

Mark Suzman, director of policy and advocacy for the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says indigenously produced research has advantages over the work of foreign researchers.

“We believe good decisions about national development policy are best made when informed by robust research and analysis grounded in local realities,” says Suzman. “The Think Tank Initiative marks an important step forward in helping forge stronger partnerships between researchers and policymakers in the developing world.”

Frey and Suzman say they hope other donors will join in this initiative, expanding its reach and helping improve the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

In August 2009, IDRC will issue a call for expressions of interest from think tanks in Latin America and South Asia. As the Initiative grows, the think tanks will form networks that provide opportunities to build and share best practices in policy research.

The twenty-four African think tanks receiving grants include the following:

  • Benin: Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE)
  • Burkina Faso: Centre d’étude, de documentation et de recherche économique et sociale (CEDRES)
  • Ethiopia: Ethiopian Development Research Institute (EDRI) and Ethiopian Economics Association/Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEA/EEPRI)
  • Ghana: Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER)
  • Kenya: Centre for Research and Technology Development (RESTECH Centre), Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Kenya), and Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)
  • Mali: Groupe de recherche en économie appliquée et théorique (GREAT)
  • Nigeria: African Institute for Applied Economics (AIAE), Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA), Centre for Population and Environmental Development (CPED), and Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER)
  • Rwanda: Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda)
  • Senegal: Initiative prospective agricole et rurale (IPAR-Senegal) and Consortium pour la recherche économique et sociale (CRES)
  • Tanzania: African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS), Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF), and Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA)
  • Uganda: Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC), and Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)