Constituent policy

Could Think Tanks Make a Difference in Our Policy Debates?, By Uddin Ifeanyi

So is there room for independent, informed and credible sources of commentary on national affairs? The research output of these bodies shaping public discourse around the issues that matter should, at the very least, improve the quality of political representation. If the crisis of representation in advanced democracies provides context, however, the contribution of think tanks to democracies might be overstated. If nothing at all, they require some type of mass media to work well.

You would not think, from an unbiased assessment of the available evidence, that the conclusion that the Nigerian economy collapsed under the watch of the Buhari government would be controversial. Yet it is. There is ample evidence from the government bean counter for this fact. From the big picture itself national economic production figures, the size and weight of public debt, etc. Through subsidiary figures (inflation, unemployment, naira exchange rate), it is clear that the economy last had such a bad time in the mid-1980s.

Indeed, by the government’s own admission, the economy is at the end of an economic experiment. Worried about the failure of the orthodox economy to deliver as a fairy godmother would, that is, painlessly, the federal government allowed unorthodox economic policies to continue. All it has done, in truth, is seek self-sufficiency, through giveaways to industrial champions and bans on competing bids. In this “so-called” makeshift alley, the economy has rushed (exaggerating along the way, the cycle of boom and bust that is a scourge of the market economy) to the dead end in which we currently find ourselves.

Yet the partisanship that has a section of the population denying the fact of economic malaise is an essential part of the cut-and-thrust of a democracy. Fans of the ruling party prefer to point to the Buhari government’s “massive investment” in building national physical infrastructure as the gains the country has made from the pains government critics are accustomed to pointing out. Putting a rosy punch on contemporary events, processes or things, especially when it comes to outcomes that are completely different from his pre-election manifesto it is the political function of a party in government.

The arithmetic that underpins cross-party dialogue in a democracy breaks down, however, when the opposing party struggles to find a counter-narrative strong enough to persuade the electorate of its different view of the facts of the latter’s daily life. And, yes, an opposition party’s take has to be different. Otherwise, there would be no need to seek to succeed the incumbent. Occasionally, this failure of the conversation upon which democracies are built is simply a matter of personnel. A leader’s lack of charisma will do just fine as an explanation in such circumstances.

If our debating chambers are struggling to agree on answers to such fundamental questions as where the economy is, where it’s headed on the back of current policies, and what boards might include an appropriate policy platform , what should be done ? This question is all the more important since the professional aggregators of the popular will are as negligent in the exercise of their responsibilities as are our present-day fellow citizens.

In the national case, apart from the absence of any leader whose view of the nation’s current difficulties or biography differs from that of the ruling cohort, the opposition’s understanding of the challenges facing the economy and solutions to these is no more sophisticated than that of the ruling party. . This fact was evident in the Jonathan years. The only difference between then and now is that the commodity super cycle (1992-2013) spared the government then in power from having to make tough choices in the face of the current one. In those cases, where the Jonathan government had to make difficult decisions, as in the case of the deteriorating security situation, its response function was a precursor to that of the administration in place.

If our debating chambers are struggling to agree on answers to such fundamental questions as where the economy is, where it’s headed on the back of current policies, and what boards might include an appropriate policy platform , what should be done ? This question is all the more important since the professional aggregators of the popular will are as negligent in the exercise of their responsibilities as are our present-day fellow citizens.

So is there room for independent, informed and credible sources of commentary on national affairs? The research output of these bodies shaping public discourse around the issues that matter should, at the very least, improve the quality of political representation. If the crisis of representation in advanced democracies provides context, however, the contribution of think tanks to democracies might be overstated. If nothing at all, they require some type of mass media to work well. They can therefore themselves be the object of partisan one-upmanship, like any other component of a free society. But the possibility of abuse is not reason enough to forgo the deployment of a potentially useful tool. In our current circumstances, however, the big question is: how do we finance them?

Uddin Ifeanyimissed journalist and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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