The role of think tanks in strengthening democratic institutions in Central Africa

The idea that rulers are required to think highly in their public affairs management strategy dates back to Plato since ancient Greece. He also supports the postulate of the philosopher-king for a society of justice (1 ) . Certainly, this ideal approach to power did not spread in later civilisations. But kings and other rulers have always found it necessary to surround themselves with counselors. Nevertheless, this model has been perverted by partisan or courtiers interests.

However, the need for permanent expertise to support those in power has contributed to the establishment of an administration of civil servants. This administrative technocracy deemed close to the political elites is no longer convincing in a society driven by the ideals of participatory democracy. In this context, the flexibility of Anglo-Saxon societies has favored the rapid emergence of think tanks responsible for analyzing the policies led by the elite in power. A connection has been established between circles of intellectuals or experts and those in power. If we situate the creation of the very first think tank in England around 1884, the Fabian Society, the tradition of think tanks really took root in America ( 2 ) . Think tanks are seen as producers of expertise for politicians, which encourages more marked political orientations between different majorities and more significant political innovations ( 3 ) .

On the other hand, the emergence of think tanks is stalling in States with a French culture ( 4 ) . In France, specifically, think tanks made a timid appearance in the early 2000s. They only experienced real growth there after the 2012 elections. Central Africa, for its part, is lagging behind, so much so that we mainly only find think tanks with a Western financial base. This weak anchoring of think tanks in Central Africa leads us to question their relevance in this context. Thus, we are entitled to ask ourselves what role do think tanks play in strengthening democratic institutions in Central Africa?

It is clear that the promotion of think tanks is only possible in a context of openness and collaboration between public authorities and civil society. As part of a process of co-construction of public policies, think tanks are essential to the evolution of ideas and development processes in a country. This is demonstrated by their proliferation in China, even though they are closely linked to the State (5) . Moreover, understanding the role of think tanks requires to first identifying them (I) to better situate their contribution in theory (II) and in their perspectives (III).

I- The notion of think tank as an expression of their role

The notion of think tank reveals their role which can be clarified by its definition, which leads to a typology.

A- Definition

From an etymological point of view, think tanks are “boxes or reservoirs of ideas”. As such, think tanks are independent research organizations which aim to influence public action by mobilizing knowledge for political purposes. While their field of research covers a broad spectrum, their main function is to contribute to public debate by disseminating research to the general public, the media, business leaders and, above all, political leaders.  Clément Sénéchal defines think tanks according to three criteria: firstly, they are structures external to the State; secondly, they are places where ideas with a political vocation are developed; and thirdly, they are structures whose activity is focused on research, with the aim of influencing political debate  (politics) and public action (policies) (6) .

Think tanks should not be confused with other research centers. According to Marc Patard, these are not new social movements, because they do not challenge the established order; they are not interest groups, because they are neither sectoral nor commercial; they are not academic organizations carrying out extensive research nor political clubs where co-optation is the norm (7) . This differentiation is confirmed by the typology of think tanks.

B- Typology

The typology of think tanks retained is that proposed by James McGann and Kent Weaver (8) . These authors distinguish four main types of think tanks:

  • University think tanks, made up of academic researchers, PhD holders, which take the form of “universities without students”. They are more oriented in the quest for knowledge than in the search for power;
  • Advocacy tanks, which defend a particular cause or political ideology by producing expert reports on public policies and recommendations;
  • Political party think tanks, which produce research directly useful for a specific party, in particular to feed its programme ;
  • Research institutes under contract, which follow a logic of response to public or private orders.

This typology implicitly reveals the potential role of think tanks in Central Africa.

II- The role potentially expanded for Central African States

In Central Africa, the role of think tanks is still weak. However, this role is potentially extensive, whether in terms of renewing thinking or designing public policies.

A- Think tanks and renewal of thought

Think tanks contribute to the renewal of thought through their activities. We can group this role around four ideas according to the analysis of Richard Hass (9) .

Firstly, think tanks have a role as an innovative “idea factory” for political decision-makers, imagining new solutions or revealing those that have proven successful elsewhere. Then, think tanks constitute “a pool of talented people and experts” by serving as a stepping stone for the promotion of young intellectuals to a wide audience. Moreover, think tanks provide a ‘meeting place’ for different public policy players through symposia, seminars, conferences and other debates on current events. Finally, think tanks play a role in “training and involving” the public, making it easier to understand public policy issues through their various media. The ultimate objective is to help design public policy.

B- Think tanks and design of public policies

There is no doubt that think tanks position themselves as key players in the design of public policies.

According to Jean-François Pradeau (10) , think tanks bring together researchers who work on current events and have a programmatic political aim. They propose to draw up measures and produce reports for legislative or regulatory use, which makes them a “force of proposal”. Furthermore, think tanks put their knowledge and intelligence to analyzing new situations, to put in place adequate public policies. This role is timely because the policies of contemporary societies are in demand for public programmes, objectives and policies. However, this demand can only be satisfied if there is a community of scholars and reformers, made up of academics and researchers who have renounced romantic postures to engage in politics.

Likewise, the retreat towards think tanks is justified by the absence of political commitment of university research. Jacques de Saint Victor believes that the academic world finds itself increasingly cut off from the political and journalistic world (11) . As such, it seems necessary to find a way of passage between reflection and action. It also becomes imperative to contain “anarchic” expertise that appears in media and political circles. These “total” intellectuals talk about everything and nothing, transforming themselves into “ toutologists ” to give their opinions on philosophical, political, legal or other subjects which go well beyond their skills. However, the expert reports produced by think tanks is both varied and specialized because it comes from experts of various specializations. The reliability of their analyzes of public policies is rarely questionable and ready to be used in a context favorable to think tanks.

III- In conclusion: create a culture of think tanks in Central Africa

Several reasons limit the growth of think tanks in Central Africa. The first reason concerns insufficient funding. These organizations depend on foreign private financing, for the most part, while the context of economic slump within the States does not facilitate the mobilization of funds internally. It would be wise for community and state institutions to fill this funding gap without questioning the independence of think tanks. The second reason lies in the fact that there is not yet extensive collaboration between think tanks, public authorities and other actors in civil society. As a result, the work of think tanks is not valued, which question their existence within States. Also, think tanks are called upon to create partnerships with the State and other civil society organizations.

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Holder of a PhD/Ph.D in Public Law, option Public Finance, Dr. Nguimfack is currently Lecturer at the Faculty of Legal and Political Sciences of the University of Dschang.


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