The Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC) joined over 170 organisations in 100 cities around the world in celebrating the importance of think tanks and the role they play in their respective countries.

The Centre hosted a breakfast meeting at the Mountain Inn today (January 30) under the theme; ‘Why Think Tanks Matter in an Era of Disruptive Technologies, Populism, and Fake News’.

The objective of the ‘Why Think Tanks Matter’ events hosted around the world – in coordination with the Lauder Institute of the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme – is to have think tanks around the world provide compelling examples of the critical work they perform in a range of socio-political and economic contexts.

“The question we are exploring today derives a great deal from what is happening around us, in 2018, including the attention-grabbing developments that we see at the global stage and their borderless impacts,” said SEPARC Executive Director Dr Thula Sizwe Dlamini in his welcoming remarks.

He said such developments provide a ripe environment for populist rhetoric and fake news to thrive. Dr Dlamini noted that “we now live in a world that is very different from the world we were used to, at least before the commercialisation of Artificial Intelligence. Technology has taken over our lives, which is good news since the Sustainable Development Goals also speak to the need to ensure that people have access to technologies (biological and otherwise)”.

However, Dr Dlamini said there are downsides to some of the technologies that mankind uses. He said whereas today people are surrounded by machines (algorithms) and technological progress has skyrocketed in the last 10 years ushering the world into what has been dubbed ‘the fourth industrial revolution’, these come with large-scale Digital and Business Disruptions.

Dr Dlamini observed that the way of doing business is changing and it comes with a lot of changes as well. “With technological disruptions, we have seen a lot of fake news, populist rhetoric, and political shake-ups of biblical proportions, which have led other countries, for example, to shut off the internet or to heavily regulate its use,” he said.

Adding, Dr Dlamini said the reason why a lot of countries are opting to regulate the internet is because fake news can be detrimental to an economy. He said the problem with fake news is that they travel fast, and so, the damage they make, whether in people’s lives, businesses, or in the political arena tends to be seriously devastating.

“While I am a great fan of technological progress, I am also aware of its economic impacts. Modern technologies are displacing humans and with them we are being told there is a looming threat of mass employment! But it is also true that with these technologies we are also seeing a lot of new jobs, some of which we do not know yet.

“But one thing is clear: the economy of the future will be churning new jobs which will require skills that currently do not exist. We will need data scientists amongst many other skills. The opportunities are also many: we have an opportunity to leverage on this upsurge in all kinds of technologies to leapfrog our young people into the future,” added the Executive Director.

Speaking on ‘Why Think Tanks Matter to the Media and the Public’, Swazi Observer Managing Editor Mr Mbongeni Mbingo lamented the use of social media platforms as sources for news stories. He said this could partly be due to the fact that information is a scarce commodity in Swaziland, particularly within the government structures, even where such information is crucial for the development of the country.

“What happens is that the media then feeds on social media and uses information that has not been verified, that is not evidence based. This situation shows that there is a need for think tanks, and there is also a need for the media to appreciate the role they play in society, after all that is why we are called the fourth estate, we have a duty to inform the public using credible sources of information,” said Mbingo.

He noted that with the rapid growth and use of the internet and social media, the spread of rumours and false information has accelerated. He said fake news is increasingly replacing the acceptance of real news, especially with the younger generation. Mbingo said that is where think tanks come in; they enable the media to convey accurate, well-researched and relevant public policy information, increasing awareness around certain issues, events and policies.

“The think tanks help us as the media to provide people with quality and factual information that is scientifically proven. For instance, we are now able to say as Swaziland that the last drought in the country cost government 7.01% of GDP and Swaziland spends only 0.26% of the country’s GDP on research and development; thanks to the research conducted by our own local think tank, SEPARC.”

Mbingo said the media should look into think-tanks to help them understand the information circulating in the economy so that it separates facts from opinion, and begins to produce constructive information that can help with nation building, economic growth and sustainable development.

United Nations Swaziland Resident Coordinator Mr Israel Dessalegne said non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can also play a pivotal role. He said knowledge management is a key focus area today. “When you look at developed countries, there is no institutional memory. I strongly believe think tanks can play a very important role in the area of knowledge management.”

He said a lot has been done in Swaziland, with a lot of good practices being exported to all over the world. Mr Dessalegne said he believes SEPARC’s potential is yet to be unleashed. He urged government, the private sector and civil society to support the think tank, and also to be frank with SEPARC. “Whatever you invest in SEPARC will be seen in the future development of the country.”

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Mr Bheki Bhembe, who was represented by Director Mr Armstrong Dlamini, said think tanks like SEPARC have a critical role to play in creating the space for policy dialogue for robust economic analysis of the implementation of the National Development Strategy (NDS).

He noted that in the absence of SEPARC, government has little or no information on the direction of the economy, that is the key challenges and opportunities, and without this information, the implementation of the NDS suffers. The PS said information from SEPARC is beginning to show government that the impact of its investments in the country’s road networks, Sikhuphe, the major dams such as Maguga, Lubovane, and key socioeconomic projects aimed at reducing poverty in Swaziland such as the LUSIP Project.

“Swaziland has the best economic strategies, and yet these have failed to yield meaningful economic outcomes. Growth has festered alongside an increase in adverse weather conditions that have downplayed the country’s efforts to lift its people out of poverty. In an era of disruptive technologies and economic models, the need to find sustainable strategies to rejuvenate growth in Swaziland has swelled.

“This therefore underscores the importance of organisations such as SEPARC, whose mandate is to foster public dialogue and conduct research to identify sustainable and lasting ways to stimulate economic growth and lift the poor out of poverty,” said Mr Bhembe.