25 years of REPOA’s experience in policy research and capacity building

25 years of REPOA’s experience in policy research and capacity building

Over the past 25 years since it commenced its operations in 1995, REPOA has become a signature think tank in Tanzania due to the unique roles it has played in policy research and capacity building for researchers and diverse research users. Policy research plays a sig­nificant role in public policy dis­course and development planning around the world.

This is evident in the presently developed coun­tries, which commands nearly half of the global share of over 11,000 think tanks. Sub-Saharan Afri­ca has only 6% of the these think tanks. Like the rest of African coun­tries, Tanzania have only few think tanks, in the form of independent research organizations, university research bureaus, and specialized sector-based research agencies. REPOA is among the few independ­ent research organizations or think tanks that has occupied an active space in the evolution of policy mak­ing in Tanzania and in the broader evolution of the development par­adigm since its commenced opera­tions in 1995.

Working with its associates, col­laborating institutions, and its var­ious beneficiaries and supported by various partners over the years, REPOA has contributed to the national efforts in enhancing policy research capacity, in expanding the scope of research-based evidence in policy development, and in pro­moting policy dialogue involving dif­ferent actors. This article summa­rizes three broad outcome areas of REPOA’s work, among many others, over the past 25 years.

Capacity Building in Policy Research and Analysis

At the time of REPOA’s establish­ment, the major policy concern was persistent poverty, despite years of policy efforts and interventions by the government since independen­cy and throughout the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

At the opening of the workshop on research on pov­erty on the 11th of January 1994, the then Minister for Science, Technolo­gy and Higher Education, late Benja­min William Mkapa stated that one reason for persistent poverty could be that, while the interventions were well-intentioned and called for, the ground may not have been well set and the implementation may have been impatiently pursued. He pro­posed, as quoted from his speech “… there has been, and there continue to be, insufficient researched studies as firm background to the plans and interventions for the eradication of poverty by government, NGOs, and Donor agencies in developing coun­tries such as ours”.

The research on poverty alleviation was therefore seen as pivotal for long-term policy actions to sustain momentum for tackling poverty. However, nation­al capacity for undertaking policy research required attention and a different approach. This was well put in the speech by Mr. J.Yzermans, Counsellor at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Dar es Salam, as quoted “.. the essence of these new research programmes is to place research in a more structural framework and to tackle the reinforcement of local research capacity in relation to the development problems over a long period of time using an institutional approach”.

The first mandate of REPOA dur­ing its establishment was therefore to build, strengthen, and maintain local capacity and intellectual culture to develop independent research agenda and to conduct independent research into alleviation of pover­ty in Tanzania. REPOA’s capacity building programme was structured to include both learning by doing and tailor-made trainings. The for­mer involved providing research grants under the Open Competi­tive System (OCS). In this system, researchers were also encouraged to team up with senior researchers to facilitate the learning process, augmented by rigorous mentoring at different stages of the research. A stringent quality assurance system, including anonymous peer review­ing, open seminars, and oversight by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) strengthened capacity devel­opment and ensured high quality outputs that were eventually pub­lished and increasingly demanded in policy dialogue forums, including the Annual Research Workshops.

The thematic focus during the first five years of REPOA programme were on the link between poverty and public policies; poverty-envi­ronment linkage; role of technology in poverty alleviation; gender issues and poverty; and social-cultural determinants of poverty. These the­matic research areas have evolved every five years to reflect the evolv­ing economic and social structure and the ensuing policy outcomes in the country, and in consideration of other relevant factors at regional and global levels.

Tailor-made training programmes were offered to young researchers and those engaged in policy analysis on research methodologies, explor­atory data analysis, and writing skills. Overtime research-user skills such as budget analysis and expend­iture tracking became increasing­ly important in REPOA’s portfolio. This experience resulted in a col­laborative post-graduate diploma programme on poverty analysis, run jointly by REPOA, ESRF, and the Institute of Social Studies (presently affiliated with Erasmus University Rotterdam). The programme was funded by UNDP and was offered for eight years, benefiting may mid-career professionals.

Many of the beneficiaries of REPOA’s capac­ity building activities can be traced at successful careers in academic institutions, international develop­ment agencies, NGOs, and the gov­ernment. REPOA has since contin­ued to provide tailor-made trainings embedded into the research pro­grammes, such as research meth­ods and technics for data collection using new technologies. There are also additional stand-alone train­ings for research users, aiming to strengthen and sustain the linkage between knowledge generation and policy, such as the unique training on Evidence Informed Policy Mak­ing (EIPM) introduced in 2019 tar­geting policy analysts, and various media trainings on the data use and dissemination.

Contribution to National Policy Concerns and International Devel­opment Discourse

For any country, the trajecto­ry of development and policies is often influenced by a combination of domestic conditions and the influence of the global economic and political landscape.

Both have changed since independence in 1961 and so has the policy frameworks: From growth and development approach in the 1960s; basic needs approach in the 1970s; to neoliberal policies under Structural Adjust­ment Programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s; to poverty focused approach in the 1990s; and to growth, trade, and development in recent years. REPOA’s birth coincided with the Copenhagen Summit of 1995 and lat­er the World Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF) of 1999. These were also followed by the Millennium Development Goals of 2000.

His Excellency Dr. Phillip Mpango, former Minister for Finance and Planning, pose for a group photo with some workshop participants , moments after officiating the opening of the 22nd Annual Research Workshop in Apri.

The concerns on unsus­tainable debt led to the tying of debt relief to the preparation of accept­able Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) based on the CDF from 2001. At the national level, the emphasis on SAPs gradually fad­ed away, as policy concerns were turned to address poverty through the National Poverty Eradication Strategy (NPES) in 1997 and the Tanzania Development Vision 2025 in 1999. NPES was a medium-term strategy that outlined causes of pov­erty and policy actions for delivering desired growth targets and reduc­ing income poverty by 50% by 2010. The Vision articulated the desires to eradicate abject poverty and achieve a middle-income status by 2025. Once again, it is easy to note that the establishment of REPOA coincided well with these policy concerns over poverty, placing research priority on various dimensions of poverty.

The Tanzanian PRSP was devel­oped along with a comprehensive national poverty monitoring system in 2001, which provided room for independent research and analy­sis and set aside research funds to support monitoring of PRS imple­mentation. The activities and the research fund were managed by the Research and Analysis Working Group (RAWG) of the National Pov­erty Monitoring System to which REPOA functioned as the Secre­tariat.

Its outputs informed PRS progress towards its targets and proposed policy changes and inter­ventions based on research findings. Research gaps and priorities were identified through a consultative process that made its research very relevant and the resulting outputs very influential to the policy devel­opment processes. One of its key outputs were the biennial Poverty and Human Development Reports (PHDRs). The first PHDR (2002) provided an overview of the status of poverty by following the progress against targets set in the PRS indi­cators, analysed geographical dis­parity of poverty, urban poverty, the macro-micro linkage, and vulnera­bility. It called for the deeper under­standing of the nature and quality of growth and its transmission mecha­nism to reduce poverty and vulnera­bility.

The dialogue that followed led to the development of second gener­ation of poverty reduction strategies that started to address growth con­cerns, and hence the title National Strategy for Growth and Reduction of Poverty (NSGRP I), popularly known as MKUKUTA, with three clusters of growth and income pov­erty; quality of life and social well­being; and governance and account­ability. REPOA’s research pro­gramme (2004-2009) was geared to addressing poverty alleviation in the context of broader issues of the nexus between growth and poverty; agriculture and environment; vul­nerability and social protection; and socio-political and cultural issues. Governance, technology, and gender constituted important cross-cutting agenda. REPOA’s research became increasingly aligned to addressing fundamental policy needs for iden­tifying constraints to economic growth, enhancing productivity and quality of growth, enhancing trans­formative potential of social pro­tection, and promoting governance reforms to enhance accountability and service delivery for sustainable poverty reduction. These contribut­ed to gradual shifts towards national strategies in which growth was rec­ognized as an important driver of poverty reduction.

Further studies illuminated the nature of rural growth, employment and labour productivity, demo­graphic factors, and conceptualiza­tion of the link between economic and social policy. Deeper under­standing of generalized insecurity and conceptualization of in-for­malization influenced the thinking towards a view that social protec­tion can contribute to transforma­tion by strengthening the human and system capabilities and produc­tive competencies. In 2009, studies renewed the policy discourse on active industrial policy, specifically on the role of the state in a devel­oping market economy. The funda­mental proposition on developmental state stressed the importance of a clearly defined vision, a long-term development strategy, maintaining macroeconomic stability and ensur­ing good governance, along with a strong political leadership and com­petent civil service.

The MKUKUTA II, a successor development frame­work for 2010/11-2014/15 and the First Five Year Development Plan (FYDP) 2011/12-2015/16 embraced some of these elements, stating the significance of well-functioning institutions and markets, good gov­ernance, and economic efficiency promoted by public investment in key infrastructure and public-pri­vate partnerships. These contin­ued to underpin the Second Five Year Development Plan (2016/17- 2020/21).

Over the past two decades, the economy has grown and sustained positive economic growth. How­ever, the concerns on the linkages to poverty reduction continued to dominate policy debates, promot­ing the view that structural trans­formation is necessary for inclusive development. A major concern over emancipating the remaining poor from poverty is the transformation of agriculture and the rural econo­my, where most of the Tanzanians lives and derive their livelihoods. This concern is an old challenge with which the leadership has grap­pled since Independence through a series of reform experiments. The challenge of transforming agricul­ture and the rural economy contin­ue to be high on REPOA’s research agenda. The objective is to achieve a high productivity and compet­itive agricultural sector driven by smallholders, complemented with a well intermediated interaction between smallholders and large-scale farming. The research carried out on various value chains such as coffee, sugarcane, cashew nuts, sisal, and horticulture indicate that transformation of agriculture can be realized through innovative institutional and organizational arrangements that address binding constraints, by reducing transaction costs, facilitating technology trans­fers for production efficiency, and integrating producers into com­petitive value chains. REPOA’s cur­rent research programme extends its previous analytical work to the drivers of effective structural trans­formation, including strategic use of natural resources; skills and job creation; institutional and policy environment for competitive pro­ductive sectors, including agricul­ture, industry and trade; addressing the challenge of informal economy; accountable and inclusive govern­ance for equity and transparency; citizen participation and local eco­nomic development; transformative social protection and gender equity; and environment, climate change, and technology. All these are crucial, as the country prepares its Third Five-Year Development Plan and of necessity, seek to sustaining the momentum toward higher levels of the Middle-Income Status.

Support to Local Government Reform, Enhanced Citizen Partici­pation, and Local Economic Devel­opment

The local government reform agenda in Tanzania began in 1996, aimed at streamlining central-local government relations within the broader context of public sector reforms for improving public ser­vice delivery. The reform agenda was translated into the Decentralization Policy Paper of 1998, which desired decentralization by devolution (D by D), implemented through the Local Government Reform Programme (LGRP).

The reform addressed devolution of political, administra­tive and financial decision-making powers and duties from the central to the local government levels. Con­sistent with the D by D policy frame­work, REPOA’s research on local government and service delivery in the late 1990s and the subsequent collaborative research programme with the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) of Norway on local govern­ment reforms from 2002 to 2012 provided significant inputs into the local government reform process. The ten-year programme followed the implementation and develop­ment of the reforms with a view to documenting processes of change and impacts of the LGRP I and II, and to provide key stakeholders with feedbacks and lessons learned from implementation of the reform.

Policy decisions by some local government authorities (LGAs), and the linkages between govern­ance and accountability benefited much from the research imple­mented by REPOA, and no doubt by other individuals and organiza­tions. Research provided informa­tion on the drivers of power and the institutional process underlying the budget process and participatory planning at sub-district levels. Fur­ther research is this area has con­tinued to inform the government and other non-state actors on are­as where decentralization policy has worked well and where chal­lenges remain that requires further strengthening and policy reviews. The Government responded well to various recommendations and have undertaken various initiatives aimed at enhancing participation of citizens at local level, improving social service delivery, and promot­ing local economic development (LED). These initiatives include the recent review and consultations on the national decentralization policy, and the Regional and Local Govern­ment Strengthening Programme.


This article indicates two crucial facts often understated or ignored. First, the credible and relevant research forms important part of the development process. Second, over the past two decades, research has played greater role in influencing policy than was the case in the past, serving as an intermediary between government policymaking and citizen needs. Policy making pro­cess has increasingly become more dynamic following the forces of glo­balization, changes in global govern­ance and global political economy, and rapid evolution of technology that demands strengthening of the bridge between research on one hand, and the quality and effective­ness of the policy making process on the other.

The emergence of covid-19 pan­demic and its resulting disruptions to economic activities and effects on health and welfare worldwide is likely to provoke new economic and social order that brings both chal­lenges and opportunities. Among the challenges includes slow growth, and increased inequality, poverty, and vulnerability. The opportunities include new market opportunities, potentials to expand intra-regional trade, and domestic production of basic medical supplies. The accel­erated spread of information, the increased demand for openness and transparency, the increasing com­plexity and technical nature of pol­icy issues, including the integration of global and regional commitments, the increased societal demands for elected government and public offi­cials to deliver development results to the citizens and the non-state actors, and the need for timely and concise information and analysis will require more research and evi­dence to make policy actions well informed and properly targeted to meet these diverse demands.

REPOA has responded well to the policy and development needs of Tanzania in line with current developments in the country, and those reflected in the regional and international development agen­da, such as East African Commu­nity Vision, Agenda 2063, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To confirm the strength of REPOA’s research and its contribu­tion, the 2020 survey of think tanks implemented by the University of Pennsylvania ranked REPOA 4th among 92 participating think tanks in Sub-Saharan Africa. The support from the Government of Tanza­nia and development partners has made the contribution of REPOA possible and visible over the past 25 years. Core development partners at different times during the past 25 years are the Embassies of the Neth­erlands, Denmark, Sweden, Nor­way, Ireland, the United Kingdom’s International Development Office, and the Canadian Centre for Inter­national Development Research. More years of such a focused con­tribution calls for continued collab­oration and further investment in research, from both public and pri­vate sectors to sustain independent and credible research over the fore­seeable future.