There is a very important reason why “think tank/policy activism” is completely different from academic work or academic thought leadership.
Academic work is about steadily making incremental, highly specialised, additions to the stock of knowledge, usually through peer-reviewed work. It is rigorous and tough. But it cannot respond rapidly to the fast paced policy environment.
More importantly, one cannot effectively critique any policy from just one academic specialisation. It is not practical. A multidisciplinary team can do it, but the costs will be very high, and societies like Ghana haven’t decided yet to support policy activism.
That means the only kind of policy activism that works in a place like Ghana must be driven by “well informed generalists”. In fact, because the policy space is highly contested, specialists can more easily be coopted or silenced. So one must be an activist first and a policy enthusiast second to be effective.
Another, more fascinating, reason why generalists make for more effective policy activists is the “crazy novelty” of policy problems.
Here is a tip a decade and half in this policy activism space has taught me: when an unfamiliar problem that is poorly covered in academic research, such as telecom tax assurance, pops up to confuse you, look for “equivalent domains” and take ideas from there and quickly apply them.
This also, of course, requires one to be comfortable about being an unabashed generalist. That is why in policy activism, rigour is not everything. As oldtime World Bank policy promoter, Kafu Kofi Tsikata, puts it: ‘”rigorous enough” is fine. Speed and impact are just as critical.”‘ (Paraphrasing).
I like examples. So let me illustrate. One quick way to convince yourself that there is something messed up about how much the Ghanaian State is spending in telco tax assurance is to look at the oil and gas industry, where production monitoring does have a very important role because governments usually own a share of the oil and gas produced (i.e. direct, live, monitoring is not only for tax purposes).
Then ask yourself: how much does Ghana make from oil and gas annually?
How does the State monitor production?
What systems does the State deploy to monitor production?
At what cost?
How does that compare to what is being done in the telecom sector.
Of course, one has to be fairly familiar with the oil and gas sector to be able to run this quick comparison. But that is the whole point of policy activism (in that regard, it is remarkably similar to “management consulting”, where consultants often have to get up to speed with unfamiliar disciplinary areas within a few weeks or even less). The trick is to have a reliable and expanding rucksack of methods and analytical tools that can be rapidly used to gather critical data and extract sufficient meaning from it, adding context through pattern analysis developed throughout a career of intellectual exploration.
Let us actually try and answer the questions above so that I can advance the point.
A. Ultrasonic flowmeters and remote observation centers are often used to monitor oil and gas production, storage and distribution.
B. A good example of such solutions is ABB’s ProcessMaster (not just the flowmeter, but the vendor’s recommended end-to-end system) and Haliburton’s DecisionSpace. Lesser known systems include PetroDaq.
C. A full solution covering the scale of oil and gas fields in Ghana can be commissioned, complete with a remote mount transmitter and observation deck, for about $450,000. Since the Ghanaian authorities tend to focus only on export terminals, I reckon two sets of monitoring systems for the two FPSOs (seaborne oil and gas production and handling terminals) would cost about $200,000, but let’s be prudent and pad the costs. Let’s even say $1 million.
D. The Ghanaian State made about $550 million last year from oil revenue.
E. This means the “additional” (beyond normal GRA assurance) cost of monitoring and assuring oil and gas revenue was 18 pesewas (4 cents) for every 100 GHS ($22) collected. Now consider what the same state has been spending on Communications Services Tax monitoring so far: 24 GHS ($5.3) out of every 100 GHS ($22) collected!
As soon as you see that as a Policy activist, you start to smell blood. Of course these are two widely different industries. But it gives you a rough starting point when deciding to pursue or ignore. You see how generalism works in this context?
Regardless what perceptions one may have about generalist policy activists who seem to flit from discipline to discipline, the fact is policy activism cannot be done from a specialist standpoint. At least, not with the resources available in a place like Ghana.
Yes, you will find a lot of ignorance parading as sophistication on this matter, but just observe how academics and other specialists in Africa find it difficult to engage with policy, and draw your own conclusions.
We can have generalist policy activists or we can have nothing. Simple.