Think-tanks are not magic wands, but they can be agents of change

04Dec 2018
Correpondent
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Think-tanks are not magic wands, but they can be agents of change

THERE has been a heated discussion in various settings recently on exactly what the word think-tank means and who or what is subsumed under it.

Many government officials and leaders of specialised organisations or agencies use the word when refereeing to institutes conducting research on their behalf and therefore, after the studies are done, to advise them on the way forward.

 However, the term has assumed an added dimension these days in the wake of the setting up of internal research and development departments in many organisations or agencies performing almost the same functions as think-tanks – at least those not in the natural sciences.

Politicians and leaders of big organisations often do not have enough knowledge on the specific positions of the particular organisations they are expected to lead.

For example, a country’s minister of trade and commerce might not necessarily be an economist. He could well be an engineer with excellent leadership and management skills.

The bottom line, though, is that the decisions the particular minister is expected or supposed to make will affect the economy of the entire country. At this point there arises the need of think-tanks.

At least going by this particular line of argument, think-tanks are research institutes, organisations, private individuals (it could be an employee) conducting research, innovating and/or providing expert advice on behalf of some other organisations or individuals.

Many developed and middle-income countries have long embraced, and profited from, the idea of think-tanks in their politics, policies and overall social and economic development. In most developing countries think-tanks are more commonly used by top government officials to launch political campaigns, create development goals, and assess the success or failure of projects or policies, and the like.

In a way, this is one of the reasons most policies in developing countries fail often well before reaching the implementation phase. If think-tanks are needed in policy formulation, surely they are needed in implementing the policies in question as well.

In developed countries, a political leader whether standing as a representative of a particular political party or as a government official can only make a decision after a think-tank has innovated it – and assessed it.

Think-tanks can expertly calculate the short-run and long-run impact of a policy or a project and make a comparative analysis of the costs and alternatives involved.

Like father, like son, Private companies in countries whose governments use think-tanks in decision-making also use think-tanks in their operations. Directors in big companies or organisations are seldom expected to be the same ones to innovate ideas.

For one thing, their work schedules are extremely tight, as one might be expected to oversee the operations of as many as five departments or units on a daily basis.

In fact, in some companies, marketing departments are supposed to conduct research to establish customers’ demands. But sometimes customers don’t really know what they want and marketing departments may fail to realise this, instead preferring prefer making short-term turns.

When this happens to be the scenario, one may need a properly experienced expert with enough free time to study and innovate for the organisation

Running organisations by relying on time-worn techniques have held down – or even precipitated the downfall of – many public and private organisations. In the case of governments, one consequence has been the manifestation of rampant poverty among the people.

Lack of focus, innovation and long-term policies have combined in a “conspiracy” that has pulled down even some supposedly strong economies.

Indeed, in today’s hugely competitive world of innovation not only in technology but also in the way governments and other organisations are led, enhanced keenness and vigilance are a basic necessity if meaningful development is to be realised. Think-tanks are not to be ignored – as they are among the engineers of today’s development phase.

While much of what is needed in developing countries or particular organisations there is in place, just how to implement the policies or plans awaiting implementation often poses daunting challenges.

Globalisation being what it is, even start-up organisations in poor countries have to compete with international or multinational organisations based or operating in or from one’s own country as well as – by definition – other countries across the globe. This explains the crucial importance of the role of think-tanks in the survival of organisations both big and small.

In the particular case of politics, the engagement or involvement of think-tanks can vastly improve one’s chances of making encouraging headway – even guarantee success. In the absence of informed research and advice, every public statement or move by a politician can prove costly or even destructive.

Think-tanks can be of immense help in establishing the impact of any political move, stand or statement in both the short term and the long term.

In today’s politics, things no longer end at territorial borders. Internal political moves can woo or irk players beyond the borders of a particular country as the interests of politicians and common are not limited by geographical or administrative restrictions.

This applies to things like construction projects, city planning, agriculture, industrialization, culture and globalisation in its widest definition.

Think-tanks are becoming increasingly important now owing to globalisation and developments in specific aspects of development, especially as relates to technology and social as well as economic issues. The interaction of these and other factors creates intense competition in domains of life – without exception.

In sum, there is truly urgent for developing countries to adopt, by engaging some adaptation as necessary, the use of think-tanks in their public and private organisations. All things being equal, doing so would put all concerned in better positions in grappling with competition and – by extension – achieving the growth and development goals they will have set for themselves.

Think-tanks may not be the perfect problem solvers or magic wands some people may argue that they are. However, despite any shortcomings some may be found having, they cannot be useless consumers of time, money and other resources. As shown, there are places and countries where they have proved useful agents of change. Why not give them a chance?

  • Amani Mapamba, a Dar es Salaam resident, describes himself as a passionate reader of The Guardian. He holds a 2015 University of Dar es Salaam BA in Economics and a 2018 Shandong University (China) MA in Political Economics.