- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ghana has twice the per capita output of poorer West African countries, but it still relies heavily on outside sources for financial assistance. Ghanaians like Franklin Cudjoe want to change that.

In 2004, Mr. Cudjoe founded Imani, a nonprofit organization to help educate his fellow Africans about property rights, free market and free speech. But running a nonprofit think tank in any country is not cheap.

“Our struggles are basically funding,” he said. “The philanthropic culture is just zilch in our country as it is for much of Africa. People hardly appreciate the long-term benefits of what we are trying to achieve: economic freedom.”

This is where the Atlas Economic Research Foundation steps in. To help Mr. Cudjoe’s outreach, the foundation this year awarded Imani $10,000 in a general grant, the Templeton Freedom Award Grant.

“Ideally, we need $80,000 annually to be able to fully implement our outreach programs countrywide,” Mr. Cudjoe said. “The Templeton grant, however, came in at a time when we were almost on a very limited budget. The grant gives us that credibility [so] that other potential founders might be drawn to our cause.”

Atlas works with more than 250 think tanks in 74 countries to graft ideas of private-property rights and limited government into international public policy. Based on the teachings of Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, Atlas was founded by Sir Antony Fisher in 1981 to help develop independent local think tanks. The foundation celebrated its accomplishments yesterday at its 25th Anniversary Gala Dinner, with ABC News correspondent John Stossel as the featured speaker.

Despite its broad reach and years of involvement, Atlas has not received much press coverage. Elena Ziebarth, director of public affairs for Atlas, thinks it is simply because the foundation’s work is hard to explain.

“We serve as a catalyst for starting think tanks and then continue to advise them,” she said. “We play far more of a behind-the-scenes role. We’re the ear listening to someone who wants to change the ideas in their country and then the helping hand that helps put their ideas into action.”

Atlas faces the challenge of integrating economics, a value-free science, into policy, a value-laden science, said Atlas President Alex Chafuen.

“Values and norms come from outside economics and provide direction to economic policy,” he said. “In cultures where religion carries considerable weight, we seek allies who are respected in their local faith communities.

“I use the analogy of a good vineyard to describe a good think tank: They need to have deep roots in the local cultures, and that, most of the time, means having roots in the local religious traditions. Bad think tanks are like transplants, or bad grafts: second-class fronts for political or business interests.”

Jo Kwong, vice president for institutional relations, said institutes in the global Atlas network occasionally experience “government persecution or interference.” Free market, independent think tanks cannot function in every political climate, so Atlas works with what Ms. Kwong calls “ideas entrepreneurs” who share similar economic beliefs.

“Once we identify these ideological partners, we’ll work with them to help connect them to the people, resources and ideas that can help them advance understanding of free markets in their countries,” she said.

Ms. Kwong told the story of Ms. Shalini Wadhwa, who tried to set up a free-market think tank in Nepal. “The Nepal government thwarted her efforts every step of the way,” Ms. Kwon said.

The government first told Ms. Wadhwa, born in India, that only Nepalese could set up such nongovernmental organizations. So she secured several local partners. Then the government told her each partner would need to present birth certificates, requiring each person to travel to the village of their birth in order to obtain the documents.

“Since most of those villages are under Maoist control, it is a dangerous thing to do,” Ms. Kwong said. Ms. Wadhwa told Ms. Kwong, “No one, regardless of how much they support our ideas, would risk the Maoists to set up a think tank.”

“In the end, Shalini set up a business magazine called the Boss,” said Ms. Kwong. “It serves to advance the ideas she had hoped to do through a think tank.” Even though the Boss does not fit the qualifications of a partner, Atlas continues to support Ms. Wadhwa’s publication in Nepal and invites her to speak at events.

“Innovation and flexibility are they key to our work, especially given the range of nations that we work in,” Ms. Kwong said.

The Atlas Foundation’s range extends from Mr. Cudjoe’s think tank in Ghana to Ms. Wadhwa’s magazine in Nepal to the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“The founding and early growth of Acton Institute is inextricably linked to the support and vision of Atlas and its leadership,” said Kris Alan Mauren, co-founder and executive director of Acton, a think tank dedicated to the study of religion and liberty. “We have very regularly tapped into their international network and expertise when organizing our activities abroad, and Acton senior staff are always present at Atlas events in the U.S. because of the useful networking and knowledge sharing that takes place at these events among the Atlas ‘family.’”

“Atlas invests ‘venture capital’ and, more importantly, ‘know-how’ capital into new free-market think tanks and educational organizations around the world,” Mr. Mauren said.

Correction: Several names in this article were spelled incorrectly. They have been fixed.

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