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Save Afrobarometer: Africa’s top public opinion survey under threat

7 Sep 2016
By Johnnie Carson, former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the first Obama administration and is now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The consortium which runs Africa's most authoritative public opinion surveys faces funding difficulties. Writing for AllAfrica, Johnnie Carson says that coming at a time when democratic institutions are under stress in parts of the continent, the decline or demise of Afrobarometer would be a major setback for advocates of democracy.

One of Africa's most important democracy advocacy and research organizations is in trouble because of a sharp decrease in donor funding.

For 25 years, Afrobarometer has carefully recorded the attitudes of Africans towards democracy, electoral systems, presidential term limits and constitutional changes, its surveys becoming the gold standard for reliable and credible measuring of African public opinion.

Established by academics and researchers at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, the University of Cape Town and Michigan State University in the United States, Afrobarometer first surveyed just two countries in 1993 and 1994. Its core contributors now comprise a consortium of elite African universities and research institutions spread across Anglophone and Francophone Africa and its current surveys cover some 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia.

Other respected organizations have published indexes and surveys on African perceptions on corruption, human rights, political freedoms and social issues for many years, but none of them have done it with the scientific rigor and systematic precision of Afrobarometer. Using the most up-to-date polling methods, the surveys have been extraordinarily successful in capturing the ebb and flow of African thinking on the continent's most important social and political issues.

Afrobarometer has been at the forefront in collecting the data and recording the sentiments of Africans on the state of democracy, political stability and corruption across the continent. It has charted and captured the growing support for multi-party democracy and the expansion of human rights. Some of its most recent polling has covered public perceptions of violent extremism in the Sahel, Cameroonian attitudes towards corruption, Kenyan views on political devolution and South Africans' trust in their president and their political institutions.

Africa has made enormous democratic gains over the past three decades. Military regimes and autocratic governments have declined sharply as a growing number of sub-Saharan African states have adopted new constitutions and embraced multi-party democracy. Large and small states across the continent–including Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire , Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, Benin, Botswana, Gabon, Mauritius and Namibia–have fully embraced multi-party democracy and are now holding regular presidential and parliamentary elections.

But resistance to greater democratization is growing as some leaders change their constitutions to eliminate term limits, crack down on non-governmental organizations, censure the press and exert greater control over their judicial and legislative branches of government. In the wake of these developments, Afrobarometer is now measuring the increasing concern about corruption and the growing disillusionment and frustration that some Africans have about democracy, their leaders and some of the challenges their countries face.

Not only has Afrobarometer been an extraordinary asset for Africans, it has also been of enormous benefit to researchers, academics and advocacy groups in Washington and Western Europe. From the State Department to the World Bank, Afrobarometer reports and surveys have been used by officials to gain greater understanding of public attitudes-not elite views-on key issues affecting Africa. And the data collected from repeat surveys is beginning to paint a political and social picture similar to polls and surveys carried out by the Pew research group in the United States.

What should be done?

The demise of Afrobarometer would be a major political setback at a time when democracy and democratic institutions are under stress in various parts of the continent. Afrobarometer should not be allowed to atrophy or die. The work that it does is far too valuable.

Donors committed to strengthening democracy need to step in and help Afrobarometer weather its current financial crisis and help the organization build a stronger, sustainable foundation for the future. Afrobarometer is not an expensive operation to run and the international community's support for the organization should not be a heavy lift those committed to advancing democracy and improved governance.

In the United States, the Obama administration, which has made good governance, the rule of law and strengthening democratic institutions a fundamental part of its Africa policy, should lead the way. President Obama has spoken out forcefully against authoritarian rule and strong man politics in Africa, calling for "more strong institutions not more strong men," encouraging African leaders to strengthen their democracies and supporting presidential term limits. Working through the State Department and USAID, the administration should step in and provide a grant of one to two million dollars a year for the next five years to support Afrobarometer's current work and help it establish a permanent endowment fund to sustain its future work.

The U.S. Congress should also throw its weight behind Afrobarometer. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has been particularly active in speaking out against corruption, human rights abuses, flawed elections and leaders who change their constitutions to remain in power. Congress could pass a resolution supporting Afrobarometer's work, appropriate funds to give direct assistance and encourage the administration to help too.

The Ford Foundation, a leader in grant-making in Africa, has focused a great deal on deepening democracy, supporting civil society organizations and helping African-based organizations create endowments to sustain their programs. The foundation has previously put together a consortium to fund civil society and democracy groups in South Africa. Organizing a similar group of organizations to contribute to an endowment for Afrobarometer would be in line with Ford's efforts in Africa and would underpin the work of local organizations supported by other American foundations in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.


Ambassador Carson was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the first Obama administration and is now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.