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Meeting the challenge of think tank legitimacy in West Africa

30 May 2024

Over the past 10 years, ACED has worked closely with policymakers in West Africa, helping them to navigate decision-making processes (policies, programs, plans, and projects) using evidence. Over the years of our collaboration, the question of the legitimacy of organizations like ACED has become an insistent and constant preoccupation of policymakers in the region. Their main comment has been: Who are you and what gives you the right to play this role, and then to tell us what's best for our community?

It is important to clarify that this is not a sign of hostility or mistrust towards us, nor is it a lack of interest in our approach. On the contrary, we have always been well received and have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with policymakers in these countries. This situation is more about the policymakers' stance, vision, and mental conception of the role of think tanks within the evidence ecosystem in West Africa. The question of legitimacy has become a major concern and a fundamental issue for think tank interventions in Africa, particularly given the sovereigntist and self-determining drive of policymakers in West Africa.

Legitimacy refers to the quality of being grounded in law, justice, equity, norms, and beliefs and, ultimately, acceptance of what is considered compliant, fair, and equitable. By questioning our legitimacy, policymakers are wondering whether they are working with the right actor.

It is the role of think tanks to convince policymakers of their legitimacy to produce and mobilize evidence to inform the decision-making processes in which they engage. At ACED, we have identified three major areas to establish and demonstrate this legitimacy:

Borrowing legitimacy from established entities. The question of legitimacy arises because most organizations, like ACED, that promote the use of evidence are not part of the state system. As "external" players, they aim to contribute to governmental processes that often do not have an explicit place for their involvement. Typically, each country's evidence ecosystem includes institutionalized bodies such as universities, research institutes, statistical institutes, observatories, and evaluation units that are already recognized as legitimate. The strategy is to partner with these national bodies and, if necessary, operate through them to leverage their established legitimacy.

Adhere to local data standards and practices. Policymakers rightly recognize the importance of data sensitivity and the necessity to regulate its production, quality, opportunism, and dissemination. Therefore, think tanks must ensure compliance with national data regulations and uphold quality control procedures. It is also crucial to acknowledge states' authority to regulate data for strategic and political purposes, provided it does not compromise moral, fair, and just practices.

Preserving independence. Policymakers often rely on consultancy firms and experts to assist in their decision-making processes. However, these collaborations typically follow a service model that may jeopardize the independence and credibility of the data produced or mobilized. The goal here is not to advocate for a pro-bono support model over a fee-based one but to strike a balance that is economically feasible for think tanks while preserving a significant degree of independence and objectivity.

These are just a few initial thoughts on how to demonstrate think tanks' legitimacy to policymakers. It's crucial to delve deeper into this topic within the West African evidence ecosystem. Over the next few months, ACED and its partners will work to identify both empirical and prospective best practices. This endeavor will help think tanks establish their legitimacy in the long term and further their mission of advancing the evidence agenda in West Africa.