By now, it is a truism that aid programs are most effective when tailored to local contexts. In turn, it follows that development outcomes are more likely to be achieved and sustained if local agents are empowered to devise unique solutions to local problems. This was the rationale for creating the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) in 2008, and one of our main objectives was to capture and share evidence of how this happens in practice. As a Program Officer who’s worked with TTI grantees in East Africa for nearly a decade, I have some reflections to share on this experience.

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a blog series on Program Officer accompaniment, edited by Shannon Sutton. 

Reflection 1: Impact is hard to measure

Tracing the contributions or impacts of research evidence in policy development remains a challenge, given that policy actors often do not reveal whether a given policy decision-making process was informed or influenced by some research findings or recommendations. The process of research-to-policy linkages is not linear. That being said, there are some cases, as I highlight below, that clearly illustrate the role that evidence plays in policymaking. Generally, it makes more sense to consider how policy research organizations are positioned for influence than to speak of how individual research outputs or projects inform policy. A TTI external evaluation report suggests that an organization’s positioning for influence is a function of the level of its independence, which can be affected by types and sources of funding, internal commitment to independence, and the political context in which it operates. This point also comes out of the DFID-funded Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence program.

Reflection 2: Local context shapes influence strategies

Context-relevant relationship strategies are vital in advancing research to policy. Think thanks in the region have adopted different strategies to meet the circumstances of their national contexts. Some think tanks undertake high-level approaches with policymakers, politely but objectively engaging them prior to public dissemination of sensitive research findings. In some cases, policymakers themselves acknowledge the valuable role that think tanks play, and advocate with colleagues about the importance of respecting the independence and objectivity of think tanks. In these contexts, researchers have had to be sensitive, continuously refining their engagement and communication strategies and renewing their networks in the face of changes in personnel and strategies in the policy arena. In other cases, where the context allows, think tanks have engaged in broader processes involving civil society actors and the media. All these approaches are consistent with observed, effective practice seen elsewhere, and the flexible nature of TTI’s support has helped enable the autonomy and communication capacities that grantees need in order to be impactful in, as the following stories from the region demonstrate.

Reflection 3: Core funding has made all the difference

Rather than describe the value of core funding, I’ll share two stories from think tanks that I have worked with that illustrate the impact of non-earmarked support. These are just some of the stories from the region that demonstrate how think tanks have made, and continue to make, great contributions to the development challenges in their countries. Flexible, longer-term and predictable stream of funding has helped think tanks to increase their autonomy and independence, as well as attract project-specific funding - two valuable contributions that have enabled them to advance their organizational mandates.

Ethiopia

Using the TTI grant, the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) set up a training wing at both the federal and state level to train policymakers on key development issues. This has enabled EEA to conduct analytical trainings that help to improve the work of policy practitioners and analysts. This, combined with EEA’s capital investments to facilitate field visits, has contributed to EEA’s outreach, credibility and reputation working at sub-national levels.  EEA’s work in conducting assessments of the revenue potentials of various tax options at regional levels in Ethiopia gained significant attention. The assessments were highly appreciated, and the regional governments involved shared the results at federal forums to inform debates about the country’s national revenue allocation formula. EEA also trained regional government officials on income account baselining for the purpose of monitoring progress under Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan. This increased appreciation of research-based evidence at the sub-national level. The regional governments now engage regional universities to provide training and evidence-based support to their development processes. Based on the recognition and credibility of EEA’s engagement at regional levels, Regional Government Councils engaged EEA to play advisory and supervisory roles in the above-referred regional universities’ support to local governments. TTI’s flexible support allowed EEA to respond to needs and opportunities as they arose, and ultimately promoted their work to have greater impact.

Tanzania

Tanzania’s Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF) used its TTI grant to restore its organizational capacity, which had plummeted due to funding constraints that prevailed prior to TTI commencement. ESRF had lost seven researchers following funding cuts from its founding donor, and research output quantity and quality significantly dropped as a result. The TTI grant enabled ESRF to make investments that facilitated field research, data collection and analysis. It also allowed it to invest in its staff, attracting more senior researchers and providing junior researchers with opportunities to undertake doctoral training. ESRF has used TTI support to organize in-house training workshops as well as to send staff out to seminars and workshops. The re-establishment of this capacity allowed it to produce more and better quality research, and rapidly restored ESRF’s reputation in Tanzania’s development process. As a result, ESRF is now widely recognized and embedded in Tanzania’s development process. For example, UNDP selected ESRF to produce the annual Human Development Report for Tanzania. The choice of ESRF to produce the report was also grounded in the organization’s track record of having played major roles in the formulation of the country’s Vision 2025 – a long-term development perspective. ESRF’s Executive Director was a member of the Tanzanian Government delegation to the UN summit that endorsed the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and is now a member of several policy taskforces. Overall, TTI support significantly elevated ESRF’s stability, resulting in staff retention, growth in project-specific funding, and numerous research-to-policy linkages.

What next?

With TTI ending in 2019, some donors have seen how effective support to think tanks is when it includes flexible core support and when it pays for the full cost of achieving the impact that the provided support targets. We would encourage others to review our evidence as well. The more donors incorporate these approaches into their financing, the more likely are we to see lasting development impacts on the ground in East Africa and other parts of the global South. Funders support policy research with the expectation that it informs change. Because policy processes are complex, and research-to-policy linkages are not linear, change requires the sustained engagement of local research actors. Responsible, flexible and adaptive funding can therefore help deliver the change that funders seek by strengthening the key actors - like think tanks – that help bring it about.