Thoughts on trans­parency

Think tanks should be ac­count­able, too, writes Hopewell Radebe

Sunday World - - Opinion -

THE ANC ex­pressed con­cern when it was re­vealed that the DA had of­fered Agang found­ing leader Mam­phela Ram­phele the unique po­si­tion of be­ing its pres­i­den­tial can­di­date fol­low­ing a se­cret fun­der ’ s bid­ding.

The ANC stopped short of sup­port­ing a long-stand­ing call by many think tanks that par­ties re­veal their fun­ders, and this could have re­solved many po­lit­i­cal ob­scu­ri­ties.

Nonethe­less, the rul­ing party noted that se­cret fund­ing did in gen­eral give rise to spec­u­la­tions about con­spir­a­to­rial net­works with “hid­den agen­das ”, which un­der­mines the cred­i­bil­ity of the coun­try ’ s democ­racy.

Sim­i­lar ques­tions about the mo­tives of face­less fun­ders are be­ing asked the world over, and in some coun­tries the spot­light has fallen on the fund­ing mech­a­nisms of think tanks by se­cret lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional donors.

In the US, sev­eral rules and reg­u­la­tions have been es­tab­lished over the years to ex­pose donors ’ mo­tives and cur­tail their in­flu­ence on think tanks and their re­searchers ’ valu­able work.

In the past 20 years, most think tanks here have also called on po­lit­i­cal par­ties to re­veal their fund­ing sources, es­pe­cially dur­ing elec­tion times.

Mean­while, people have been ad­vo­cat­ing for to­tal trans­parency in in­sti­tu­tions set up to hold gov­ern­ments ac­count­able, chal­leng­ing think tanks to re­veal their fun­ders and to tell what re­search projects they par­tic­u­larly sup­port.

Since join­ing the South African In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at Wits Univer­sity a month ago, its lead­er­ship has been tack­ling this is­sue.

Our in­sti­tute is cel­e­brat­ing its 80th an­niver­sary this year and has been voted the leading think tank in subSa­ha­ran Africa for the fifth con­sec­u­tive year in the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia ’ s Global Think Tank Sur­vey.

It has fol­lowed these in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ments by re­view­ing its pol­icy to re­veal on its web­site more in­for­ma­tion about its fun­ders, in­clud­ing the pro­grammes they sup­port.

Ac­cord­ing to Till Bruck­ner, ad­vo­cacy man­ager for Transpar­ify, an ini­tia­tive ad­vo­cat­ing for greater think tank trans­parency in coun­tries, many think tanks in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are pre­dom­i­nantly or even ex­clu­sively de­pen­dent on for­eign donors to carry out their work.

“It is hardly sur­pris­ing that many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sus­pi­cious of donor­funded think tanks, a sus­pi­cion that of­ten ex­tends to all NGOs re­ceiv­ing sup­port from abroad.

“Far from re­quir­ing these think tanks to be trans­par­ent, some donors – no­tably USAID [the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment] – ac­tively abet opac­ity by their non-profit grantees,” Bruck­ner charges.

He be­lieves that think tanks can play a pos­i­tive role in en­rich­ing na­tional de­bates and de­ci­sion­mak­ing, es­pe­cially where there is limited ca­pac­ity for pol­icy anal­y­sis by other play­ers, but warns that as long as most think tanks re­main im­per­me­able about their fun­ders, it will be im­pos­si­ble for stake­hold­ers in these de­bates to sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff.

Con­ven­tional wis­dom has it that think tanks strengthen democ­racy and im­prove the pol­icy for­mu­la­tion process.

How­ever, crit­ics ar­gue that think tanks must lead by ex­am­ple if they wish to be taken se­ri­ously when they call on gov­ern­ments, lib­er­a­tion move­ments and po­lit­i­cal par­ties to be “trans­par­ent ” and de­mand that there should be no abuse of state re­sources dur­ing cam­paign­ing sea­sons un­der the pre­text of ser­vice de­liv­ery.

Af­ter all, most think tanks ’ crit­ics ad­mit that these in­sti­tu­tions do largely en­rich pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal de­bates by pro­vid­ing in­de­pen­dent, qual­ity re­search and im­par­tial pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions to govern­ment of­fi­cials, op­po­si­tion lead­ers, the me­dia and vot­ers, thereby in­creas­ing the num­ber of voices in the de­bate and the qual­ity of the ar­gu­ments made.

As lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional donors and pri­vate foun­da­tions pour mil­lions into think tanks on this con­ti­nent, in­clud­ing in South Africa, they are bet­ting on their small grants to help bring about sub­stan­tial im­prove­ments in na­tional and re­gional poli­cies on is­sues rang­ing from par­lia­men­tary re­forms over small en­ter­prise sup­port to agri­cul­tural ex­ten­sion ser­vices, to re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion.

Radebe is com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager at the South African In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

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