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Rise of Think Tanks: Do Ideas in Uganda Matter?

Morrison Rwakakamba

By: Morrison Rwakakamba

Ideas matter. Substance rather than form is supreme. Truth, pilule reasonableness and respect are critical to blooming of enduring ideas.  And for ideas to matter, they should be relevant and contextual.

Such ideas should also be bold and practical enough to solve real world problems and thus expand opportunities and options for a better future of societies. That is a worldview I share and belong.

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One would miss a lot by only feeding on empirically less driven information ferment propelled by exuberant and frenzy social media where mostly banter, conjecture, profanity, lazy populism, innuendo and emotions rule the universe.

Yet social media can be used to liberate life changing information, knowledge and interactions, a tendency millions of social media users in Uganda are yet to digest and execute.

In Uganda, beyond brain trusts led by university system, think tanks on various issues have been mushrooming and thriving. But what is a think tank? According to Wikipedia, a think tank, is an organization that performs research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, culture among others.

According to University of Southern California historian Jacob Soll, the term “think tank” is modern, but “it can be traced to the humanist academies and scholarly networks of the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Soll notes” in Europe, the origins of think tanks go back to the 800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. A tradition of hiring teams of independent lawyers to advise monarchs about their financial and political prerogatives against the church spans from Charlemagne all the way to the 17th century, when the kings of France were still arguing about whether they had the right to appoint bishops and receive a cut of their income (Wikipedia).

Recently, The Economist described “good think tanks” as those organizations that are able to combine “intellectual depth, political influence, and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings, and a streak of eccentricity.” What is Uganda’s place as a thinking nation and how are our think tanks doing?

To understand where we are as a country on this parameter, one needs to keenly look at Vision 2040. Although the document presents some concrete and imaginative work, it is weak on one prime benchmark integral to achieving an integrated first world economy by 2040 ~ knowledge! The plan and role of knowledge as propeller of new age transformation is not clearly articulated. Over the years, strategy, planning and funding (investment) for research and innovation has been weak.

Former US Vice President Joe Biden once remarked “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Do we deeply value knowledge/ideas in this country?

A study by James Otieno Jowi and Milton Obamba on research and innovation management in Uganda, Ghana and Kenya concludes that most persistent weakness for mentioned countries is weak financing systems for knowledge production that are mostly dependent on unpredictable international donations and lack of national and institutional policies and programs that stimulate collaboration and knowledge exchange between research subsystems and the industrial and business subsystems.

So, how will we then achieve a knowledge economy if we don’t make knowledge a priority? Make no mistake, even the more practical and mass empowering manufacturing sector only works to full capacity when powered by knowledge to drive innovations, efficiency and competitiveness.

I know Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development funds to some extent the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC). This tendency should be democratized to include more think tanks working on different issues without compromising their independence. For a country with a strong military, it is strange that research and innovations for development is lagging behind. Militaries allover the world retain a rich history of research driven advancement and innovations and continue to mostly lead on cutting edge technology.

Besides the foregoing, some good stuff is beginning to happen at our think tanks. Are we slowly but steadily pivoting into a thinking nation? The 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report (TTI) is out and has ranked the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) as the best think tank in Uganda followed by Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC), and Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) respectively. ACODE was ranked number 23 out of 94 Top Think Tanks in Sub-Saharan Africa. This ranking index is led by the University of Pennsylvania through its Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP).

Congratulations to ACODE and other think tanks making things happen. Now the issue is how to bring this ACODE et al expert knowledge to bear on government decision-making. The challenge is to harness the vast reservoir of knowledge, information and associational energy into practical inputs for public good. For example what has been the contribution of these think tanks into shaping government policies and flagship service delivery programs like Youth livelihoods program, Operation wealth creation, Standard Gauge railway, National Identification, Youth ICT Innovations Fund etc.?

ACODE, MISR, EPRC, Agency for Transformation among others will need to urgently bring out their work and lead the pathway for transforming Uganda into a knowledge economy. And to succeed, they will need to work closely and creatively with the most powerful force ever created by man ~ Government! Some of the key institutions these think-tank’s should work with are the National Planning Authority, Parliament and Office of the President.

These are institutions at are the center of planning and forecasting for the future, legislating and acting on the present. For think tanks to be effective, they will by and large require to put people at the center of their work.

I have been following ACODE’s work on local governance reform, environmental democracy among others. For such work to quickly bear, ACODE et al will also need to go beyond knowledge generation and learn to communicate. Sloganeering and heckling should be left to populists in political campaigns and activism. Think tanks should pull over and ally with those governing to help reform public policy and work for the greater good.

Morrison Rwakakamba, mrwakakamba@gmail.com

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