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Common funding myths: lessons from Nigeria

The sources from which think tanks get their funding from may present different challenges and scenarios. More often than not, these can turn into stereotypes which may not always be true: for instance, government funding may not always undermine think tank independence, while private funding may not always ensure it. Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu of the South African Institute of International Affairs examines the Nigerian case in order to exemplify the types of scenarios that can emerge when the government is the major source of funding for think tanks, as well as situations in which think tanks’ depend heavily on foreign funding. In both cases, queries about the independence of the institutions come up, and whether or not it consists of a client relationship, which could possibly inhibit criticism of governmental authorities or influence think tank policy recommendations.

Nigerian private think tanks were regarded as alternative centres of knowledge during military rule in the country that lasted from 1966 until 1999, as governmental think tanks were financially neglected and sometimes considered as opposition to the regime. Staff from universities and public think tanks went over to private organisations, and foreign donors usually channeled money through these as they considered it too risky to directly finance corrupt military governments.

Since military rule ended in 1999 and the country transitioned to civilian control, think tanks are also going through changes. There is now a reconstruction and reform of public think tanks and universities, led by the state and foreign funding agencies.

For example, the effect of a programme of re-building selected universities launched by the Ford, MacArthur and Carnegie foundations has generally been to reduce the size of their grants to private think-tanks.

These agencies believe that supporting universities and public research institutions will strengthen democracy, hence their interest in funding these institutions. Also, private institutions are now required to show better quality of administration and management, something that was generally overlooked during military rule; competition for staff has become fierce.

Okechukwu explains the relationship between think tanks and foreign donors by particularly looking at dynamics during military rule in Nigeria. Since they tried to avoid government interference and control, private think tanks sought financing from other sources such as corporate and foreign donors. However, ironically enough, these foreign sources were charged by several think tank leaders with trying to pursue special interests through research organisations and NGOs which were not always to the benefit of their societies. Local think tank directors were unhappy with foreign donors as they perceived them to have a “tell you what to do” attitude.

In addition, foreign donors were not perceived to be development-orientated, but interested in fads and fancies of programme officers, and of serving the interests of global neo-liberalism. When military rule ended in 1999, private think tanks and foreign donors hit a rough patch: now foreign donors charge these institutions with a lack of accountability, and claim to be changing priorities for the sake of democracy.

Private think tanks thus had to turn to the government for funding, some becoming its clients. This has spawned worries over possible state intervention and heavy influence in the direction of think tank research and subsequent policy recommendations. Nonetheless, the paper emphasizes that:

“It is often assumed that the funder dictates the tune to the beneficiary and that on becoming a government client, think-tanks necessarily curtail their criticism of the benefactor. While it may be true that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it should not be overlooked that the piper can refuse to play”.

Okechukwu points out that doing work for the government is not a sufficient condition for losing independence. For instance, factors that can impede that scenario are a track of independence, access to external or corporate funding, a professional approach and high quality work output. In conclusion, generalised views of think tank – donor relationships which do not take into consideration the history of the country’s experiences as well as particular think tank characteristics might not necessarily be wrong but are certainly inadequate.