Think Tank Pioneers Evidence-Based Policy in Sudan
KHARTOUM—As Sudan emerges from a 20-year period of international isolation, a new think tank—a rarity here—is dedicated to improving public policy in the country and to training young specialists in economic development.
Gasim Ibrahim has supported the think tank, the Center for Development and Public Policy, from the beginning and currently serves as its fund-raising and partnership officer. A group of socially conscious citizens started the center in September 2017, he says. The founders are professionals with international experience in a variety of fields, including business, nongovernmental organizations, higher education and the media. All have Sudanese roots.
“Since Sudan’s independence, government has lacked a knowledge-based policy-making process,” a need which the new organization seeks to meet, said Yasir Zaidan, a Sudanese researcher in Washington, D.C.
The organization is emerging at a critical time for Sudan. The United States lifted economic sanctions against the country in October 2017, opening up new opportunities for development. But the country is still reeling from the effects of the 2011 secession of the independent state of South Sudan, which reduced the Khartoum government’s income from oil production by more than half, according to the World Bank. This year, the Sudanese economy experienced high inflation and the severe devaluation of the Sudanese pound against the U.S. dollar.
The center is “more of a think-and-do-tank than a social-change organization,” Ibrahim said. The organization desires not only to diagnose problems, but also to present solutions to these problems to public-sector institutions, and to build consensus and support for policy in Sudan. The center also wants to foster partnerships with think tanks and institutions in the region and the world.
With the long-term plan of influencing policy at the government level, the organization strives to be separate from partisan politics and in favor of a more unified vision of the state that is free from overly divisive political activity. In a country that has been under the rule of an autocrat—Omar al-Bashir—since 1989, policy-making in the past has largely been confined to a small, self-serving group.
Part of the organization’s work involves training young people in policy-oriented thinking that would be relevant to Sudan. The group’s “Development and Public Policy” program started before the center was formally established and is designed to give participants a strong foundation in development economics, geopolitics, culture and history, as well as in critical and strategic thinking.
The two-week training program enables participants to look at the country’s situation in a pragmatic way, Ibrahim said. Applicants to the program go through a rigorous selection process that includes a written exam and an interview. “The program is designed in its entirety to address the reality in Sudan, and most of the instructors are Sudanese,” he said.
Following the two-week program, some participants are given the opportunity to continue in an intensive year-long advanced program. Completing the year gives the participants an equivalent of a diploma from the program, focused on leadership training and issues of politics and development. Other program graduates join a larger alumni group, forming a network of motivated individuals who come together to carry out voluntary and community-service activities.
Zaidan, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the Center for Development and Public Policy is the first independent think tank in Sudan that tackles policy matters by using government-oriented research and Sudanese expertise to meet economic-development challenges.
Lujain Salih, a female graduate of the third cohort of the training program, expressed her enthusiasm for the training she received. “The program provides the basics in development that are crucial to understanding the country’s current situation,” she said.
An engineering graduate with experience in volunteer work and community service, Salih said the program equipped her with knowledge that will enable her to improve the effectiveness of her volunteer work. She felt that conveying course material through games and debates was particularly effective and enhanced her skills in negotiation and decision-making.
Currently, the center relies on seed funding from philanthropic grants, though it is “trying to move towards a more sustainable model,” Ibrahim says. The center endeavors to maintain political neutrality and is trying to avoid “falling into the trap of a donor-directed agenda.” To balance these competing pressures, Ibrahim said, “our fund-raising policy is highly transparent and relies on maintaining integrity and independence by diversifying our sources of funding.”
As the young think tank comes up on its one-year anniversary, its founders remain hopeful that it can help Sudan create laws and policies that are based on careful thinking and not hasty emotional or political reactions to circumstance.