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Think tanks in Bolivia: an analysis

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[Editor's note: this post is part of our focus on Bolivia this month. It follows up on interviews with Fundacion ARU and INESAD, published in the past two weeks].

Studies about think tanks in Bolivia have suggested that they have been successful in influencing public policy, due to their strong links with political parties and social movements. They describe the Bolivian think tank landscape as inherently political, pinpointing the emergence of many of these institutions to the rise of two different political projects in the 1980s: the implementation of neoliberal policies encouraged by organizations like the IMF and the World Bank, and a vindication of indigenous identity by ethnic groups who felt historically left out by governmental programmes. In both scenarios, think tanks are presented as crucial actors to the development of political party programs and providers of technical assistance for public policy formulation.

I had the same impression when I traveled to Bolivia’s political capital, La Paz, in May of this year. Very little in Bolivia is not political: daily life has a constant background noise of protesters marching up avenues setting off firecrackers, which by now scare no one. Governmental decisions are largely made “on the street”, as parties and social movements have made large-scale protests their main strategy in applying pressure to Evo Morales’ government. The production of knowledge could only then have a “with us or against us” quality; just about everything else does.

With this idea in mind I planned for my questions to Fundación ARU and INESAD to bring out the political nature of the link between their research and the formulation of public policy by state institutions. However, what came through most clearly in our interviews is that these two think tanks put a high premium on being seen as organisations who strive to provide evidence-based research without a political agenda in mind. While they described their relationship to the current government as cordial, both think tanks placed emphasis on the fact that they produced research not just in an effort to make an impact on public policy but also to increase the amount of what they consider to be a lacking public good in Bolivia: independent research. They also did not shy away from consultancy work; INESAD at least quite encouraged it.

This is a far cry from those NGOs explicitly linked to ideological programmess, like Fundacion Milenio, FUNDEMOS, UNDAPE and PRONAGOB in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Rafael Loayza Bueno, these organizations legitimised the neoliberal agenda and provided technical assistance to the incumbent governments. Later on when ethnic groups became increasingly politicised, think tanks like CEJIS and CEDLA were formed in order to support indigenous movements with evidence and knowledge, and provided them with financing and capacity building. These think tanks also developed the political programme on which Evo Morales’ social movement, Movimiento al Socialismo, based its governing policies.

What we may be seeing is a shift from those politically charged think tanks of the 1980s and 1990s to institutions that want to be seen as more technocratic, whatever the personal political stance of their directors and staff members. This could be understood as a reaction to a highly politicised and polarised environment in which it became necessary for there to be actors which society – and international donors – could rely on to produce independent research.

Pragmatism could be a key factor that explains the emergence of think tanks of a more technocratic nature in Bolivia –and elsewhere. Donors have shifted their interests to fit within the evidence-based policy discourse. Institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank once financed Bolivian think tanks who advocated for neoliberal policies, while some European donors financed think tanks linked to ethnic movements; today they look for more ‘neutral’ local partners. These think tanks need to prove that they can produce research which bases itself on impartial and objective analysis of evidence in order to be in step with donor interests; a quite important goal in a country with limited financial resources for research. They understand that their sustainability relies on being perceived as independent, both by donors and by the government. Their path to influence is not through parties and social movements but through the allure of evidence and science.

Fundación ARU and INESAD are helping to construct a new type of think tank scene within Bolivia, one that believes in taking itself out of politics of class and of identity (of the past) in order to change it. Nonetheless, their adoption of the evidence-based policy discourse is at least as much a political proposal as a pragmatic response to the Bolivian political context and donor interests.

In fact, the evidence-based policy narrative that INESAD and Fundación ARU have adopted is not apolitical: on the contrary, it is a political response that seeks to present itself as an alternative to existing political ideologies. “Evidence-based policy speak”, as Andries du Toit calls it, is strongly associated with the rise of new Labour in Britain, and has since become part of the field of development and poverty studies, largely transmitted through the UK Department for International Development. Du Toit describes this narrative as normative, since it mostly consists of what policy should be: how the relationship between evidence and policy should be like; how researchers and policymakers should behave. It is a “policy about policy”, and as such, its politics determine how policy should be made, what type of evidence is suitable, and how it should be interpreted and communicated.

The evidence-based policy discourse’s technocratic nature thus does not escape the political. Political context is central in understanding which evidence is used and which is left aside, for instance. It determines which knowledge is legitimate and worthy of being used for public policy formulation. In other words, it provides an ideology for decision-makers: science. And after all, choosing one ideology over the other is also a political act.

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