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AusAid’s knowledge sector support programme for Indonesia

By far one of the most interesting programmes related to think tanks out there is AusAid’s Revitalising Indonesia’s knowledge sector for development policy. (But if I could change one thing I’d suggest dropping ‘development': development policies is what developed countries call developing countries’ policies.) I heard of it last year on a trip to Indonesia to work with some think tanks.

I’ve given the programme some thought and felt it might be appropriate to make public my recommendations to whoever decides to take it on. It should be clear then that I am not supporting any one bid. (I realise I’ve said most of these things a few times before.)

First some responses to the ToRs:

  • As I have mentioned before, I am not too keen on the demand-supply-intermediaries framework used in many studies and interventions. This seems to suggest that there are 1) distinct and non-overlapping roles and that 2) there is a functioning market. While the marketplace is a powerful metaphor it can also be misleading. I’d like to see the programme implemented with an open mind and a view towards creating and developing and better and greater conversation. This, I believe, is a more appropriate metaphor.
  • I also feel that not enough attention has been given to Universities and their vital role in the knowledge sector. Who else will train the future policymakers, thinktankers, NGO staff, journalists, politicians, etc.? Universities and their capacity to nurture future leaders are crucial players of any knowledge sector.
  • Equally, the media, political parties, and the corporate world do not feature in the programme. If other initiatives are dealing with them then the winning bid, I hope, will take them into account and establish links with them. If there aren’t any then I hope they will make provisions to engage with these institutions. Without them think tanks (NGOs and the policymaking bodies of the State) cannot develop in the long run.

Some ideas for the implementation

The bidding parties must think outside the box. Although the programme wants to see think tanks, NGOs and the government strengthened, does this mean that it should only work with these actors? No. To strengthen all three Indonesia needs a constant stream of capable and competent young graduates: economists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. to staff them. And the long-term horizon of the programme would allow for these investments and even to see some returns.

So I would avoid ‘workshops’ for skills and focus my attention on improving the quality of undergraduate and graduate programmes; maybe by introducing modules, by supporting teachers, encouraging secondments from leading international universities, etc. In some cases think tanks’ staff could teach there but always in view of strengthening the teaching and research capacity of the universities themselves -not replacing them.

I would also put a cap on ‘capacity building’ support for organisations. I get a feeling that many organisations exist in a never-ending state of capacity building. I like to compare it with the 35+ year old undergraduates one sometimes finds in state-funded universities in Peru. While it is true that we never stop learning, there should be a limit to the number of years one is allowed to stay in school before graduating. What matters then is that these organisations are supported in learning how to learn by themselves.

When providing core funding the programme needs to make sure that the funds are not just spent; they must be invested. And this investment needs to be seen as an opportunity to create new ideas and not just get better at bidding for more work. I was impressed by CGD’s capacity to think around ideas. When I mention this to other think tanks they tend to respond by saying ‘oh, but they have core funding, we would too could if we had core funding’. Well, this is their chance to prove it.

A good indicator of success should be that the organisations supported do not just change policies but come up with great new ideas that turn the tables and position them as though leaders.

So I would hold awarding the small grants until I see the good ideas. And when they do get funded, why not try funding different ideas about the same problems and promote a public debate? Democracy, after all, is not democracy if the public is not involved and informed.

To support the ‘demand side’ (I am following the ToRs) I would like to se more research on the ‘policy back-box’ being done and widely distributed. Often one of the main barriers to using research is that recommendations get lost in the system; a system that neither researchers or policymakers fully understand. Initiatives like the Institute for Government in the UK are an excellent example of efforts to explain, as much as possible, government to government.

Also to support the demand side I’d recommend to see an effort to systematically review policies and programmes as a way of challenging policymakers to ‘show us the evidence’ behind their decisions. This does not mean, however, that all decisions must be based solely on evidence; but should be informed by it. Lets incorporate impact evaluations to policy choices, for example. A policy quality watchdog? A school of government?

The demand component, too, should target political parties. While the programme may not ‘allow it’ it is possible to use the same research, tools and trainings to be developed for policymakers for politicians. If not directly, maybe the programme should fund civil society organisations to work with parties and support their policymaking capacity.

If the programme addressed universities it would find that think tanks might be forced to join the intermediary component. In any case, an effort should be made to work with or through civil society organisations to support the most important intermediate of all: the media. Without a strong and informed media the public will be left out of the policymaking process. And while this may lead to policy change it will not be sustainable -we know this from recent experience in Latin America where economic reforms have led to growth and prosperity for many but are still highly opposed by a population that feels largely excluded from the process.

In terms of the enabling environment, the ToRs focus too much on public or foreign donor funding. The real challenge is to mobilise local philanthropists. Why not establish philanthropic networks and work with western or regional philanthropists to encourage their Indonesian peers to get involved? And why not target legislation to support this? Donor dialogue, in other words, should read ‘domestic donor dialogue’.

Another key component of the enabling environment is, of course, the availability of capable human resources for research and policy analysis. Why not support universities or encourage Indonesians to ‘return home’ to set up think tanks, work in the government or teach? The Chinese have benefited from this source of capital gain.

Finally, a key environmental issue (it covers all other components) is leadership. My experience is that some of the best think tank directors, like some of the best policymakers, are policy entrepreneurs. In any gathering of think tanks it is easy to see who went to the Kennedy School of Government and just landed the job as director by chance.

In terms of structure and management

Why not include, in the Steering Committee, individuals from national research funds or non-donor philanthropic organisations from other parts of the world? Brazil, India, South Africa, China? Why not include the directors or board members of leading think tanks and universities in the United States, Europe and a few emerging economies (but not ‘international development think tanks, please: they do not engage in mainstream politics like Indonesian think tanks and researchers and so do not really know what these organisations are going through)?

Maybe, too, include the leaders of initiatives such as the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tank Fund and GDNet. cross-fertilization of ideas is always good.

While the temptation will be to organise the management structure of the programme along the lines of demand, supply, intermediaries and environment, I’d advice against it -or at least to include a matrix structure. Options could include focusing on the different type of organisations supported, the policy issues themselves, or the competencies and skills that the programme wants to develop.

To support these organisations the contractor needs to develop a very detailed and nuanced understanding of them. It is not enough to assume that all face similar challenges and therefore must need the same kind of support. Similar challenges may be the consequence of different causes: staff issues, poor management, an advocacy origin, non-demanding clients, etc. can all explain poor research quality. Therefore I think that staffing the programme with ‘client managers’ that monitor a few organisations at a time would be a good idea. And by monitoring I mean keeping a close link with them and making an effort to get under their skin and understand their organisational culture.

A programme of this size and importance should include a research component on the political economy of research uptake that besides revisiting the diagnostic studies, pays attention to, at least:

  • Philanthropy: barriers and opportunities
  • Political party programmatic capacity
  • The challenges and opportunities faced by the media in Indonesia and its capacity to participate in and promote an informed public policy debate
  • The labour market of experts in Indonesia: who sets the price of research?
  • How are new digital tools changing the way we learn, communicate and participate?

A key role then should be that of a director of research or technical advisor -who should draw from others across the world. Ideally, these studies should be undertaken in Indonesia itself with the intention of ‘making this a researchable subject’ just as we have done in Latin America, for example. But support to oversea the research agenda could come from outside Indonesia. Again, as I have said before (here and via onthinktanks many times before), try to avoid ‘development think tanks and researchers’ and instead look for think tanks and researchers in developing and developed countries focused on the same types of policies that the Indonesia programme wants to influence. International development think tanks do not deal with politics in the same way as the rest of the think tank community does. The work being done by Grupo FARO in Ecuador, CIPPEC in Argentina, and PLAAS and DRUSSA in South Africa, is worth paying attention to.

The technical advisor should be able to draw lessons from across the world rather than be a know-it-all kind of person. Because a key aspect of this role is to adapt and adopt lessons into the Indonesian content he or she must be either Indonesian or very familiar with the country and the community the programme wants to influence.

A weak point and a huge challenge for the programme is its monitoring and evaluation. I am afraid I cannot offer much advice on this expect that it should not be too focused on impact while not paying sufficient attention of the inputs. AusAid should make sure that whatever can be controlled is done properly, only then does it make sense to assess impact; which is beyond the programme’s control. A good alternative is to keep the evaluation of the programme independent from the delivery of the programme and to look for expert impact evaluators based in universities (and therefore with a focus on the discipline) to explore options and develop an appropriate approach for the programme. While the contractor may manage it, it should be under a sub-contract that clearly states the independence of the evaluators. Having one of the partners in the bid in charge of the evaluation is only likely to create disincentives towards objectivity.

As I mentioned in the opening sentences of this post I’ve decided to write this publicly so as to maintain my independence (and that of this blog) in the this process. While I am happy to offer advice to anyone who asks and cares to listen I am not supporting any bid in particular.

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