TTCSP Student on Relationship Between Local Think Tanks and Policy Advising in Africa

A sophomore majoring in political science with a minor in humanitarian affairs, Elizabeth Doney is interested in the policy process: how we reach certain policies, who gets to decide what is implemented, and who benefits from it. This is why this past summer, she decided to pursue research specifically on the non-governmental players who influence policy.  By looking at the best practices for think tanks in sub-Saharan Africa, Liz and her team made recommendations for how they can improve the function of think tanks both in Africa and internationally.

Liz applied for an internship to work under the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), Jim McGann, at the Lauder Institute for International Relations, a branch of the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.  After a couple weeks in the program, she was designated project leader on Sub-Saharan Africa. The TTCSP is the foremost database of its kind in the world; it catalogs all think tanks in existence, including contact and basic information, and produces reliable data about trends in think tanks. The team was responsible for updating the database, verifying information, and using the data to complete their research project.

Their research produced qualitative data that looked at the experiences and challenges of think tanks.  It reflected that African think tanks lag behind those in other regions because they don’t have the institutional capacity of others.  In other words: better use of the internet, greater accessibility via email, improving business practices to accumulate funding for worker salaries, and addressing the brain drain are all viable and necessary solutions.  

Historically, when African governments are in need of policy advice, think tanks in Africa have lacked the investment necessary to effectively provide evidence-based recommendations. This leads to governments outsourcing to the West for guidance, and, like all policy, Western approaches don’t work as well in Africa because they are not formulated around the region’s individual environment. The benefit of increasing institutional capacity is that African governments can construct solutions and provide for the future of the African political arena without intervention.  

Although it will take time, investment, and commitment for these changes in the operation of African think tanks, and subsequent policy benefits, to come to fruition- this research presents the opportunity for others to make these solutions happen.  Leaders cannot perfect the world on their own, which is why research plays an important role in providing guidelines to bettering it. By finding both the cause and solution to a problem, research has the power to obligate leaders to take action.

As this was Liz’s first research project, she said this experience was “Definitely an exercise in effective leadership and having to be self disciplined, in that we worked independently and on our own time in getting the research done.”  For her, it was beneficial to observe being a professional in a field of interest as well as advantageous to have a reality check about what is important and needing to be addressed, then being empowered to address this. Liz is currently working on a research project for class on how polarization impacts public perception of Supreme Court legitimacy and continuing to look at summer opportunities in research and the nonprofit sector to round out her understanding of non governmental policy actors.  Her advice to undergraduates considering research is, “The best thing you can do is push yourself and push our limits in terms of what you can do” she explains. “If you’re willing to take things as they come and put yourself out there, people and undergraduates specifically are capable and well equipped to do more than they would give themselves credit for.”


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