By Jaime Gonzalez-Capitel
[Note: On Wednesday June 29th, Tranparify publishes its 2016 report with ratings of the financial transparency of 200 think tanks from around the globe. In today’s post Open Policy Research founder Jaime Gonzalez-Capitel interviews Assefa Admassie, the Executive Director of the Ethiopian Economics Association and Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute which has made one of the largest improvements in financial disclosure of any think tank worldwide this year. The following text is an abridged version of the full interview.]
Q: Our readers may not be familiar with the work of EEA. Could you briefly describe your research portfolio?
A: The Ethiopian Economics Association under its research arm, the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, undertakes research in four major areas: Macro-economic issues, Agricultural and Natural Resources Management, Industry and Trade, and Poverty and Social Sectors Analysis.
But we’re not exclusively a research organization: we conduct capacity building aimed at different audiences. There are specific trainings for our members, but also short courses for the staff of federal and regional level agencies.
Q: Your organization is membership based. How has membership evolved over the last years, and what type of services do members demand?
A:We currently have between 4,000 and 5,000 members. Typically, they are individuals –economists – but we have a range of other categories that include institutional members, honorary members, and students. In terms of services, members can … take part in trainings … specifically designed for members. Unfortunately, members request more trainings than we can provide and… we simply can’t organize as many trainings as we wish!
Q: Ethiopia ranks 103/168 countries in Transparency International’s Index, yet your organization has opted for full financial disclosure. Why?
A: While I can’t comment on the global picture and Ethiopia’s position as I don’t know the parameters, EEA strongly believes that it should have prudent financial management systems. We have an external audit every 6 months, not just annually … to make sure the rest of the world knows we’re not hiding anything. The external auditors present their findings in a General Assembly, and this enhances credibility, improves trust and confidence. … We have nothing to hide, and in fact we haven’t withheld any information even in the past. When we saw the ranking last year we were a bit pissed off –we had everything, but we just didn’t have it on the website.
Q: How does the decision of embracing financial transparency relate to the management of EEA since its foundation? And how does it relate to the credibility of the institution and influence on policymakers?
A:To be honest we didn’t know much about Transparify until last year. I got an email from the executive board about the initiative and saw that we had obtained the rating of 1 star – that was the starting point. When I looked into the criteria we decided to post whatever information we had. This helps build our credibility and communicate that transparency and openness are core values for our organization.
Q: What have been the challenges in the process, and are there any disadvantages?
A:I don’t see any risks. We are obliged by our core values to be transparent, and I don’t think that there are any negative implications – this is of course yet to be seen in the future, but any rational person and organization would take this positively. You know, think tanks are not always clean. If you take my own country, there are serious debates within the government and between the government and civil society organizations. The government has suspicions about the role of these organizations and who backs them, but by disclosing and making ourselves transparent we will hopefully clear some of the doubts. I want to underline again that the only thing that is new to us is publishing on the website the information that we already had on hard copy.
Q: You direct an economic think tank with a very strong academic focus. Are you open to corporate funding as well? And if so, how do you think that would impact your activities and your reputation?
A: The private sector is one of our stakeholders … The good relations we have with the Ethiopian chamber of commerce and private companies are based in a basic principle: we don’t want their money to buy our results. We are professional researchers and experts and will not compromise our integrity.
Q: What do you recommend to other think tanks in Ethiopia and Africa?
A: My recommendation is that organizations that want to be credible and faithful to their cause, they need to be transparent. Transparency is one of the elements, one of the variables in the equation. In order to build trust among stakeholders, to create a proper and credible institutional image, think tanks should take transparency and accountability very seriously.