Mehari Taddele Maru identifies four intellectual challenges for African think tanks

This year, IPSS will celebrate its 10th anniversary. This marks a high point of achievement for Addis Ababa University, IPSS and its partners during this eventful inaugural decade. Though conceived in 2004 in the AAU Reform Action Plan, IPSS was born three years later in 2007.[1] The Institute was designed “to bridge the gap between the academic and policy worlds, thereby generating better conceptual frameworks that in turn will lead to the development of practical strategies and policies for enhancing international peace and security by bringing together people from every relevant discipline who study international peace and security issues; and building bridges between the academic and policy communities.”[2] In a nut shell, by applying a multidisciplinary approach to applied policy research, IPSS was established to help pan-African institutions (AU, RECs and others working closely with the AU) tackle the intellectual challenges posed by the state of peace and security in the continent. In less than a decade of its existence, IPSS has become one of the leading pan-African think tanks.[3] 

Four core functions of think tanks

There are four ways African institutions of higher learning and think tanks such as IPSS could significantly contribute to the transformation of Africa. These are:

  1. Equipping pan-African institutions and policy organs with the highest possible policy clarity to address policy dilemmas and strategic craftsmanship through training programmes focused particularly on skills development;
  2. Ensuring African intellectual sovereignty by seeking African solutions to African problems;
  3. Enabling Africa to assume its place in the international community by designing common African positions that help foster a unified pan-African voice.
  4. Producing a critical mass of experts and academics equipped to serve Africa in its aspiration to become an integrated, peaceful and prosperous continent. IPSS has delivered effectively on these fronts.

Four major intellectual challenges for African think tanks

During this critical transition, think tanks, including IPSS, could be further augmented by focusing on the following four intellectual challenges:

  1. Deliberating on emerging issues that present policy dilemmas

Think tanks play vital roles in setting the agenda and addressing the ‘policy dilemma’ that Member States, the AU and other policy mechanisms face during a transitional period. Various mega trends also exhibit policy conundrums that demand detailed applied policy research. These include the following: socio-economic stressors: how to move from exclusive to inclusive development; demographic stressors: transforming population from liabilities to assets; environmental stressors: building the political will and adaptive capabilities for climate change resilience; migration stressors: addressing displacement and irregular migration and facilitating good integrative mobility; governance failures: outpacing crises through transformation of the nature of state and non-state actors; and international interventions: that focus on capacity building and subsidiarity instead substituting or undermining Africa actors.  

Due to the above listed stressors, Africa is in transition, facing a dichotomy of despair and hope, between African pessimism and African optimism. Transitions are often characterized by unpredictability and volatility. Only appropriate interventions ensure that crises are abated and gradually reduced and eliminated and that transformation can be enhanced and maintained. Thus, for Africa to become more stable, transformation needs to outpace crises; but the requisite capabilities to predict, prevent, respond and adapt to these vulnerabilities and threats are yet to be fully developed.

While the governance deficit is one of the causes and accelerators of the challenges to peace and security on the continent, at the same time governance is a game changer in determining the peace and security situation in Africa. Hence, governmental responsiveness will determine this pace and in turn, good governance will determine the peace and security of the continent. States, individually and collectively, are the central actors in the transformation of the region without which integrated, peaceful and prosperous Africa cannot be achieved.

Such state transformation needs to ensure that states are effective in the delivery of legitimately expected basic services; inclusive distribution of public goods; legitimate responsive actions; an accountable exercise of state power; and a capability for revenue generation and collection. States that are unable to fund vital and sovereign functions of the state (such as public law and order, national defense and security, health and education, etc.) through internal resource mobilization mechanisms, cannot be viable, sustainable, capable or willing to bring integrated, peace and prosperity to Africa.

  1. Bridging the communications gap between the political, diplomatic and technical communities

The interaction between the three communities, particularly the first (political/policy) and the third (technical/expert) is rather limited; at best it is fragmented and sporadic, as there is no platform for systematic interaction between them. There is a significant body of knowledge and clarity within the scientific community on what should be done to resolve the myriad of policy dilemmas and problems the region is now facing. Demonstrating the lack of deliberative communications between the political, diplomatic and technical communities, the influence of the technical community on the relevant diplomatic community and political/policy making bodies still remains minimal.

Indicative of the absence or low influence of evidence on policy and political decisions, one of the reasons why early warning does not easily turn to early action is mainly due to the minimal impact of technical work on policy decisions. A binding constraint bridging the gap between early warning and action is the lack of political determination to act on early warning. Differences on dispute resolutions related to borders and transboundary resources like the Nile river, most often are acute at political and diplomatic levels, more so than within the technical communities of hydro-engineers or experts.

  1. Filling the norm-implementation gap

Another yet more urgent constraint Africa, and the pan-African community is holding back is the norm-implementation gap. Progress in the implementation of existing policies will ultimately determine whether the AU, RECs and the Member States will deliver their promises to the peoples of Africa. Nonetheless, the current normative frameworks, deliberation and actions have lagged behind the actual pace of change in peace and security, integrative opportunities, and regional and global emerging issues.

While norm-setting could be regional or global, implementation is most often local. Localization of AU norms remains the unfinished task of pan-Africanism and pan-Africanists including integration. Nonetheless, collaboration with various key actors in the region including between AU and RECs is very low. In this regard, the role of think tanks in devising strategies for the effective implementation and managerial competence within the pan-African institutions has never been more critical and urgent than now.    

  1. Localization and subsidiarity to bridge the global-local gap

The idea of ‘African Solutions to African Problems’ embodies the localization of the global and pan-Africa agenda items. African think tanks like IPSS have unique characteristics which global think tanks may not possess. Local presence significantly helps to ensure the relevance of issues identified by think tanks. Due to their geographic proximity, pan-African think tanks like IPSS offer local expertise and legitimacy in convening deliberative forums and generating policy options, which forums that are distant from Africa would not be able to offer due to motivational and accountability gaps.

The need for local expertise has increased in almost all aspects of norm setting and implementation. The global agenda (development, peace, security, climate change, migration, etc.) cannot exist and be separated from local agenda priorities. Most challenges to development and threats to peace and security become extremely complex and highly intertwined with local political, socio-economic and anthropological factors. Hence, local expertise is in high demand to identify challenges, and ‘particularize’ policy options.

In addition to building local expertise, proximity could help ensure that think tanks are focused on problem solving and may help with efficiency and effectiveness due to relevance and responsiveness to issues at grassroots or regional levels and thereby would also facilitate cost reduction.

Consequently, demand (by global think tanks and institutions) for partnering with African think tanks has also surged in recent times. This is evidenced by the ever-increasing foreign delegations visiting think tanks such as IPSS, the high demand for invitations to forums such as the Tana Forum, and the number of Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) signed. Nonetheless, many of these MoUs are dormant in terms of active projects and need to be accompanied by action plans and strict follow-up.

In a nutshell, the role of a think tank like IPSS should focus on the new frontiers of refinement and progress including: shifting from norm-setting to norm-implementation, and from intervention to prevention; promoting political and financial resource allocation to bridge the gap between early warning and early response; and the transformation of states and non-state actors into agents of human security.

Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru

Independent consultant

MPSA Facilitator, IPSS 

[1] Office for University Reform, Addis Ababa University Reform Action Plan, 2004-2005 (1997 E.C), December 2004. The writer was the Director for University Reform that was tasked with overhauling the university academic and administrative system.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 2016 Global Go Think Tank Index Report, available from (accessed 4 October 2017)