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The onthinktanks interview: Priyanthi Fernando

 [Editor's note: This post was made available to us by Clara Richards, an independent consultant working on the interface between research and policy in developing countries. She is currently coordinating the Evidence Based in Development Network (ebpdn), and has worked for more than five years in CIPPEC (Argentina) developing the policy influence and evaluation capacities of Latin American think tanks and coordinating the Latin American chapter of ebpdn]

The interviews published by onthinktanks and vippal on think tanks’ leaders raised the interest of ebpdn to sum up efforts in gathering more of these experiences from different regions. Nayana Godamunne from CEPA agreed to interview the Executive Director from that organisation, Priyanthi Fernando, opening up their best practices and the challenges they face as an organisation that tries to find its way through research in a complex environment. We encourage other members of organisation to interview their own directors and share their output on onthinktanks, vippal and ebpdn. Please, contact me if you are interested in participating of this round of shared experiences.

NG: CEPA was established in 2001, what were the motivations for setting it up?

PF: By 2001, there was an increase in development projects, greater awareness on the benefits of impact monitoring and the need for specialised skills in monitoring and evaluation.  In response, CEPA was set up using the skill base from the then GTZ (Now GIZ) Poverty  Impact Monitoring Unit (PIMU). The thinking behind setting up CEPA was to create an organisation that would provide robust independent research on poverty related issues, and fill the space for impact monitoring that was thought to exist. In a sense, CEPA was established with a definite concept in mind, its orientation is a balance between client servicing; through shorter term assignments and research; through longer term programmatic funding.  In addition,  it was recognised that there could be times when funding for its work could be difficult and being a not for profit organisation,  a form of ‘insurance’ was necessary to protect CEPA from undertaking work purely driven on a basis  of financial need which could compromise its independence. This ‘insurance’ comes in the form of the ‘Development Fund’ which is a reserve of US$25,000 created by GTZ at inception and sustained by contributions from CEPA’s income earning activities.

NG: You joined CEPA in 2005 as ED, prior to which you worked internationally and lived overseas for a considerable period of time.  What was it about CEPA as an organisation, that attracted you to it?

PF: CEPA has a relatively flat management structure with a great deal of pride in its participatory management style.  All staff are encouraged to actively engage in discussions which take  many forms – from the more traditional research brainstorming to the lunch table discussions from which some of our best ideas have originated. I am very comfortable with this type of management style. My skills, experiences and orientation were, I think, a good fit for CEPA. No doubt there have been challenging times over the last 7 years but overall it has been tremendously rewarding to be part of a highly passionate and motivated team who truly believe in what they do and what they want to do which is to bring about change for the betterment in the lives of  men, women and children.

NG: In the Sri Lankan context, what is expected of a think tank? Has the role and function changed since you first took over as ED?

PF: There are few independent think tanks in Sri Lanka and retaining that independence is a challenge in the current political and economic context.  CEPA fiercely stands by its research quality and independence which sometimes means we have to say things which are not what our clients want to hear.  We also strongly believe that we need to communicate our findings which are grounded through field level engagement with communities. But in the present political context the spaces for dialogue and exchange are increasingly shrinking.

Also, as the name CEPA suggests, the nature of our work has a strong poverty focus which was very much part of development rhetoric in the earlier 2000s. Much of the government and non government development activities focused on poverty reduction and alleviation. But more recently, Sri Lanka has been classified as a middle income country which has implications for our work. As far as funding is concerned, Sri Lanka is no longer a priority country for poverty reduction programs so accessing donor funds has become much more difficult. In addition, with the government statistics indicating lower absolute poverty figures, the term poverty is no longer part of the government rhetoric. This is not to say that there is no poverty in Sri Lanka but that use of the term is now not politically savvy. Also CEPA has specialised skills in impact monitoring which was and still is a niche skill. But impact monitoring, in the present context, is not considered an important activity as many implementers are looking at blind rubber stamping of their initiatives rather than critical analysis of the impacts of their projects.

NG: How has CEPA coped with these challenges?

PF: Our biggest asset is our staff. We have a relatively young team of researchers, many of whom have been at CEPA for at least 5 years. Attracting and retaining good staff is always a challenge, specially when there are more financially lucrative jobs in other sectors. At CEPA we have a relatively flat structure. We have three skill teams and 5 thematic research areas. Our research staff are categorised into 3 levels as Junior Professionals, Professionals and Senior Professionals depending on their skills and experience.  The organisation culture is one that does not encourage competition between skills teams or between individuals at each level but one that fosters individual capacity building within the overall framework of a CEPA team. At each level, there is a lot of capacity building and research staff are provided opportunities to lead and take ownership of their work when working on specific assignments. This organisational culture which supports guiding, mentoring and individual capacity building within the context of a team with a common set of core values and objectives is a core strength of CEPA as evidenced during difficult times when all of the staff have pulled together as a team.

We have also adapted and reorganised the way we work without changing our core values. We are recipients of the IDRC Think Tank Initiative which has provided us core funding to take stock, conceptualise and strategise our research focus and activities in the longer term.  TTI funds have provided us ‘thinking time” which is a critically important aspect of a think tank and an activity rarely funded by donors. We have now organised our research focus into 5 thematic areas; environment and climate change, infrastructure, migration, vulnerability and post conflict and set up a new skill team for Communications and Policy which again is an important component of a think tank.

NG: How has CEPA contributed to the way public opinion and policy is framed in Sri Lanka?

PF: CEPAs work is grounded in empirical research from the grass roots. We are committed to empowering these communities with the knowledge that we generate and strongly believe that in a liberal democratic environment these communities can use the knowledge we put out as a constituency when they vote or voice their demand for better access to and provision of public services for instance.  We also work through the media and have a range of public events for discussion and debate. On a case-by case basis we also take our work to higher levels of policymaking where we feel we have something of public interest which should be shared. The most recent example being the lessons learnt from our role as the external monitor for resettlement for the Southern Transport Development Project which is Sri Lanka’s first Expressway. Given the impetus towards infrastructure led growth in Sri Lanka we felt the need to share the best practices and lessons learnt from our work as widely as possible. We have done this in the form of public discussions, media articles, a publication and a position paper for parliamentary debate which would influence the way in which resettlement is handled in future development projects.

NG: What are your thoughts on how knowledge is produced and acceptance of that knowledge in the global forum?

PF: To produce new knowledge you need money and there isn’t enough  of it to go around. As a think tank we are competing with other think tanks and academic institutions for a piece of that pie.  I believe we lose out when we compete against each other.  There is so much we as an intellectual community can bring to the table if we work together. Some competition is good, but there are benefits from synergising and complementing too.

As a southern think tank there are mindsets that affect the acceptance of the knowledge that we generate. Often when we are writing up research proposals we are asked to collaborate with northern research organisations.  Many of the journals produced in this part of the world are not considered ‘peer reviewed’ by the knowledge gurus of the North. There is a knowledge hierarchy and a knowledge agenda set by the north which is based on the assumption that we don’t have the academic, qualifications and skills to produce reliable and acceptable knowledge which I strongly disagree with.  There are many southern think tanks like CEPA which have staff with excellent academic qualifications, skills and local knowledge which are equal, if not in some cases, better than those of northern researchers. I think the assumption that   knowledge produced by southern institutions is not up to mark needs to be challenged.

NG: As a not for profit organisation CEPA  is dependent on external funds for  its work. What do you see as the disadvantage of this? Are there other ‘non traditional ‘ sources of funds that CEPA could tap into? What about funding from Asias booming economies?

PF: Yes, there are a couple of issues. First, the donor sets the agenda and to be eligible for funding, we have to spin the research question or hypothesis to fit that agenda.  These agendas usually have a time frame; but issues and buzzwords come and go, they are defined in geographical spaces far from the real life world of the communities they are intended to benefit.  So, sometimes there are misfits between what is required by the community and what is required to obtain funding. At CEPA , we try to resist agendas set up donors and look for  funding sources which give us leverage to find an issue which we are interested in researching.

Then there is the issue of showing results – indications that we have an impact. The change that we are seeking to bring about sometimes is a slow process and may require more than a single intervention. So there is the issue of showing short term results at the expense of longer term real impact.  I’d like to share a comment that I received on my personal blog when I talked about the effectiveness of think tanks –

The focus on “uptake” has a sickly underbelly – because it can incentivise the researchers to push their findings to policymakers, when we know the world is a complex place and no single research can give all the answers…. so there are (or at least can be) moral implications in how strenuously we push our findings out there…. research needs to be judged by how well it can trigger and sustain an active policy focus and effective policy dialogue on a given issue….what we need to be judged by is whether or not we made people think.

As for other sources of funding, it is encouraging that local corporates are setting up Foundations, some of which are interested in funding knowledge sector activities.  One has ambitions of becoming the local Gates Foundation!  A  project of the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex with which we are linked, is exploring philanthropy and development, and is showing that  Sri Lanka, is quite high in the giving index, so maybe this will get translated into support for the knowledge sector though at the moment it is much more on the lines of direct support to the needy.  As for funding from Asia, much of the funding comes in the form of bi lateral loans and some grants mainly for infrastructure related projects. There isn’t any for ‘soft’ activities such as research unfortunately.

NG: Lastly, how do you see CEPA negotiating a place in this complex environment?

PF: In the last 10 years, CEPA concentrated on developing the skills of creating robust research findings, and building a reputation as a serious research organisation.  In the next decade we would like to maintain and develop this skill base further, but also look more at how we can transform the knowledge we’ve gained from our research into an informed dialogue among citizens, government decision makers, civil society organisations and the private sector.

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