The onthinktanks interview: Jorge Vargas Cullell
[Editor’s note: This interview was done by Ileana Avalos, a specialist in Policy and Modernisation at the Interamerican Institute for Agricultural Cooperation. She focuses on topics such as agricultural policy, regional integration and the economic sector].
Jorge Vargas Cullell is the Adjunct Director of the State of the Nation Program, where he began to work in 1996. He supervises the Program’s research processes. He is a researcher in the areas of democracy and political systems. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and an MA in Alternative Resolution of Conflicts from the University of Notre Dame in the US, and has a Professional Title in Sociology from the University of Costa Rica. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as the quality of democracy, political attitudes and the reform of the state.
“We consider ourselves a centre of thought that provides data and information, points out the country’s strategic challenges and formulates questions, with the goal of elevating the quality of dialogue and civic participation in Costa Rica”
Ileana Avalos (IA): How did the idea of creating the State of the Nation Program come up?
Jorge Vargas (JV): The State of the Nation Program (PEN) began with the idea of publishing an annual report on development in Costa Rica. This idea emerged during a university strike during the early nineties, in favor of university budgets. Miguel Gutierrez Saxe and Jose Andres Masis, now the director of OPES (Higher Education Planning Office) considered that, besides asking for budget, universities should have an initiative that would give the country a reflection on where Costa Rica was headed, what challenges it faced and how we were dealing with them. The PEN stems from this small anecdote 20 years ago, and involved from the beginning public universities that are part of the the National Council of Rectors (CONARE). This added on to the interest of the UN Development Program (UNDP) on human development, the need to measure it and to prepare national reports that made it visible. The key message was that development was more than GDP per capita and commercial liberalization.
Furthermore, during that time the Ombudsman’s office was created in Costa Rica, called the Office for the Protection of Citizens. This nascent institution found particularly useful a tool that would help understanding what was going on with the rights of the Costa Rican population. We wanted then to promote the notion of human development as something much bigger than economic growth in a time when it was believed that development basically implied commercial openness and market liberalization recipes. Therefore, an idea emerged that reminded society and decision –makers that development is the abilities of the people and so other things had to be taken into consideration, like equity, poverty, the environment, and we placed ourselves firmly within this perspective.
IA: Why the name “State of the Nation” and not “Human Development Report”, like in UN activities in all other parts of the world?
JV: Because since the beginning it wasn’t strictly a UN initiative but rather a consortium. Second, the person who named the program was the then president of Costa Rica, suggesting that we were like a “state of the nation”, an exercise of accountability. From this phrase the creators considered that it was a good name for an initiative like ours.
As a National Human Development Report the PEN is the third oldest (Egypt and Turkey’s reports are older) and it is the only one that has been continuously done every year.
IA: What is the judicial figure that the PEN represents?
JV: We’re a CONARE program that has constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, so we’re protected by university autonomy. We have a Board of Advisors made up of people of diverse affiliation (businessmen, civic leaders, intellectuals of different ideological backgrounds). The Board of Advisors establishes priorities and the research agenda, and discusses our findings and our analyses.
IA: What do you think is the role that PEN plays among the group of political actors in Costa Rica?
JV: What a complicated question, good question. It has to do with the way we see ourselves, like a tool in service of the population. What we do is to provide information, analyses and data that different groups of citizens, for different reasons and seeking different goals, might find useful.
Our idea is not to tell these citizens what to do but to give technical data upon which they can settle conflictive and cooperative situations. With this in mind, the PEN has become a platform where different societal and political sectors can find information that they believe is truthful and relevant for their own political action. What we provide is a data and analysis platform, and at the same time we point out challenges that the country is facing, we formulate questions and we provide support when solicited. Many people come to ask us, “if we were a government what could we do with such situation?”. We then provide information to anyone that asks us. We are not under any sort of partisan pressure.
I like to think of it that way, like a platform that supports citizen action, aimed at increasing the quality of dialogue and participation. Taking care that PEN isn’t a panacea, nobody chose us for anything, we do not represent anyone. Taking care of not telling people what is best for them.
IA: In this sense, do you consider that your actions are more related to political incidence or to being a centre that generates evidence for policy formulation?
JV: Yes, we are a bit of both but our twist is mostly being a tool for people interested in improving the quality of their participation in public affairs. From this perspective I prefer to see myself much more as a toolbox, useful for different groups.
IA: Like a generator of synergy?
JV: Yes, for people wanting to debate and deliberate upon problems of public importance, within the rules of the democratic game. At the same time during the process one generates unintended consequences: we have created spaces for dialogue and have contributed making certain issues visible, topics which originally do not belong to anybody’s agenda but are objectively important. For example, in Costa Rica half of the salaried working force does not get paid for extra hours, so what kind of social equity are we talking about if the minimum guarantees provided by the labor code are not even being enforced? Nobody had that issue in mind and we put it on the public agenda.
This is how we contribute to generate useful information, create spaces of dialogue between sectors so they can eventually get to know their differences and at the same time make issues visible that have been left aside. This is an important point for us: widening and giving more substance to the public agenda.
IA: Many years have passed since the creation of the PEN. What is the key for lasting in time so long and for adapting to different contexts and challenges?
JV: There isn’t one single answer. First, being persistent: year after year we publish a report that follows on certain topics, we have increased societal knowledge on these issues. Second, aiming at innovation in the ways we report about human development performance. Third, careful management of our public image. The PEN does not involve itself in party politics. People who work here can of course have their political inclinations but institutionally the PEN does not pronounce itself on matters of electoral politics and we ask everyone to refrain from having an electoral profile.
Fourth, our participatory research strategy. The process through which the PEN report and other reports are made, which combines research (technical, academic and as rigorous as possible) based on interdisciplinary networks combined with periodic processes of consultation and dialogue with different societal actors. For instance, last year the XVIII State of the Nation Report report involved between 50 and 60 researchers and close to 300 people discussed the outputs during the process.
IA: Who are your main allies?
JV: It is better to think it as a “quilt” of allies (excuse the unseemly metaphor). We have different allies for different things. At the research level, we have close relations with research centres and public universities. By definition, we are an inter-university centre although we have managed to position ourselves as something more than that.
At another level, we have the sources of information. Every year we put together over 50 sources. This can’t be done without the goodwill of many public officials. We have built a network of constant support and supply of data.
In another layer, the training layer, each year our team works with approximately 4000 and 5000 people in face to face meetings: community organisations, labor unions, entrepreneurs organisations, institutions of the education system, among others. This allows us to maintain a permanent training program on the issue of human development. Finally, we conduct intense work with the mass media. You have to think of it as chess, with different levels and you have to move the pieces on different boards.
IA: And enemies?
JV: So far there hasn’t emerged an actor casting itself as an explicit enemy of PEN and systematically saying that the PEN is biased or partisan oriented. We have faced complex situations. In some moments governments have wanted Miguel Gutierrez Saxe’s head or mine. There have been moments where we have been criticized, due to our mistakes or because we have been in an impossible situation. For example, for the referendum on the Free Commerce Treaty between Central America and the US, by law there had to be an informational document for the population and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal asked us to prepare one. In a highly polarized and toxic political environment, it was a difficult job and at the time we faced a very complicated process.
IA: Are you familiar with the definition of think tanks? Would you consider the PEN as a think tank? Why, and in what area?
JV: I am familiar with the concept. In reality we do not define ourselves as a think tank proper. I think it is a war-like concept: a tank of thoughts has an agenda, shoots it against the rest and tries to impose that said agenda. I deeply reject that metaphor in order to define my institution. I know it’s the one most used. I prefer to say that we are a centre of thought aimed at promoting human development. We aren’t against anyone, we’re not shooting against anyone, we do not have an agenda that promotes a specific ideology. We accommodate different ways of thinking; we want to understand ourselves as a halfway point that allows the visualization of the country’s challenges.
IA: What do you consider to be the most appropriate balance between research and communication?
JV: Several things. In public relations dissemination is an exacting task. We get phone calls from different actors looking for information to which we say either that we have it or we refer them to the person or institution that does. There are also our circuits with embassies, ministries, seminaries and conferences. People imagine that the PEN is a 25 story building with 500 researchers and it’s not. Sometimes it becomes quite overwhelming.
IA: Could you list for me some of the think tanks that you consider are the most relevant in Central America?
JV: I reiterate my objection to the use of the think tank metaphor to define many research centres. I use it because the question has been formulated in such terms. In Guatemala, ASIES and ICEFI are definitely of great quality. Also, the institutions linked to the Francisco Marroquin University. In El Salvador there is FUSADES, FUNDE, among others. In Costa Rica there’s INCAE and the Academia de Centro America, they’re important think tanks.
IA: What advice would you give to other think tanks based on the lessons learned in the PEN?
JV: I wouldn’t give advice to anyone. Such a pretension entails a certain level of arrogance. I consider that what is important is that they do their job with ethics, morality and professional quality. After that it’s up to them.
IA: After so many years in the PEN, why have you made the decision to keep working in it?
JV: Because I don’t get bored, because I can think and I can make others think and because until now I haven’t been turned away.
IA: In your position as adjunct director of the PEN, what are you most passionate about your job?
JV: Understanding, generating knowledge. Knowledge that can be used by ordinary people for improving their lives.
IA: And what is hardest for you?
JV: The time that you have to give to Public Relations endeavors.
IA: Finally, based on your personal experience at the PEN, what professional and personal characteristics do you think a leader of a centre of thought has to have?
JV: According to the PEN philosophy, it would be three things: first, having a good academic background. Second, knowing how to listen; trying to listen to what you don’t like and trying to control the impulse to dismiss what you don’t like. And three, managing networks. Knowing that it is a type of spider web.
The PEN is a small thing. It is like a flea in an elephant stampede, in any moment they can make the flea disappear. We work every day with external forces that are bigger than us. What is important is that all of these elephants have a good reason to kill you and a good reason not to, and thus live in danger.