Ranking the Chattering Classes

The politics of lists like the "Top Thirty Think Tanks in sub-Saharan Africa."

Carsten ten Brink, via Flickr CC.

It must be list day or week around here. A survey of the University of Pennsylvania’s recently released Global Go To Think Tank Report’s “Top Thirty Think Tanks in sub-Saharan Africa” (see Table 8 on page 44) may leave the average reader of Africa Is a Country slightly perplexed as to what it takes to get respect for thinking on the continent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, four of the top five institutions are both Anglophone, and South African based; CODESRIA, the Dakar-based, pan-African (i.e. not sub-Saharan) social science conference convener, grant maker, and publisher, being the only representative to break into the South African cabal. Perhaps it should also not be surprising that those who loiter at the intersection of intelligence, security studies and the ubiquitous ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘peace’ business seem to predominate, with an admixture of free-marketeers, and international development types making up the numbers.

But then it would only be a surprise if one naively thought that an exercise in ranking African think tanks carefully took into account the impact of said thoughts (tanks?) on the daily lives of Africans themselves. For this is an exercise in elite back-slapping with a distinct northern bias.

The methodology dutifully documented by Penn’s ‘Think Tanks and Civil Societies” (orthodox Marxists would perhaps quibble with the plural of the latter) program seems to entail a load of interns identifying a “comprehensive universe” of think tanks; sending said “universe” letters to ask them to nominate institutions for the survey. Nominated organizations are, thereafter, evaluated by an unnamed “Expert Panel” (note the capital letters), the expertise of whom we are asked – averting our eyes – to believe represent not only those of “experts” but “every region and functional area” in the “universe” identified by the interns.

Then, in the spirit of Survivor and American Idol, institutions receiving more than five nominations are sent to an expanded pool of their peers, and unnamed “journalists, public and private donors, and policy makers” for further review, only to be returned to the unnamed “Expert Panel” for a final Round III, wherein said Panel makes “warranted changes” prior to final publication at a global events including, but not limited to, “the United Nations University in New York City and at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.”.

Oh dear. Inverting the trajectory of this apparent objective evaluation, one could, without indulging in conspiracy theory, identify a conspiracy of unnamed experts and interns, no doubt, all of whom, dutifully embellished their resumes with the deflected glow of excellence, or something.

We should not be too unkind, there are some excellent think tanks on the continent that made the list. The Institute of Security Studies, the Centre for Democracy and Development, CODESRIA, and IDASA, the latter where some of us at Africa Is a Country have worked (Sean Jacobs and myself) – are obvious contenders that significantly contribute to building the public sphere through the interrogation of challenges and realities that Africans and African government’s face. But they do peak out among the dross: those whose entire existence appears to be predicated on mediating the perceived peccadilloes of the natives for the benefit of the North, alleviating post-colonial burdens by fiddling at the edges of war and disaster, or spooking the spooks with tales of woe regarding the security of white people here there and everywhere.

I guess there is also a question relating to what constitutes a “think thank,” but at this point, that would be purely academic.

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