Thoughts on transparency
Think tanks should be accountable, too, writes Hopewell Radebe
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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