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Posts by Adrián Lauer

Female think tank leaders around the world

We have been compiling a list of think tanks led by women around the world. If we went by the number of women in think tank gatherings one would find it easy to assume that women have had very little presence in leadership positions in the think tank sector, even if they have a large presence in their staff and in senior positions within them. We know that they are fewer than men, but it would still be interesting to inquire about the characteristics of those who reach positions of leadership: what is their background like? As this research in based on gender and people, rather than topics, making the list has proved being a challenging task. There are no previous large lists on the subject, and we have had to review think tanks’ information and staff profiles one by one to find which ones are led by women. Our list is still in process, but we’re able to draw some conclusions.

We hope, too, that you’ll contribute with your own insights and information.

Most women who lead think tanks work in fields like social development or economics, and they have an education comparable to their men peers. We find that think tanks in the United States are increasingly embracing women as leaders, even if the leading American think tanks have large gender gaps, and in regions like Eastern Europe they are very active in the most influential think tanks.

Ways of accessing leading positions can vary widely, from nominated positions to those elected through an election system among members of the institutions. In most cases, female directors, as with men, have made a previous career inside their think tanks, escalating from positions that can be either an area management or just a staff member, especially when they start from an early age in the think tank. There are still problems of gender discrimination and under-recognition of women at work places, which intensifies in a highly competitive ground as scientific research, that keep woman away from the allure of working as researchers and team leaders. We can also observe a bias toward certain areas of interest as education, social issues, and evidently, gender issues, even in countries with large opportunities as the United States. Amanda Marcotte writes about the existence of “daddy issues” –such as economics, security or foreign policy- and “mommy issues” –such as education, health, poverty, etc.- that build up a divide in career prospects of women and generates an ongoing debate in the U.S. Marcotte leaves an open question about the voluntary nature of these choices among women.

In Eastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, most women have previous careers in international organisations in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially at the UNDP, owing to the fact that the international community had an essential role in restoring peace and civil organisations after the war. International organisations as UNDP have gender equality policies that look forward a greater participation of women in politics and civic society. In the rest of Europe, women tend to come from academia and government.

In Latin America, most think tanks are related to academia, and many centres are linked to universities and schools, where women have had fairly equal opportunities to build a career. We have found a higher number of women leaders than expected in the most important think tanks of the region, and who have built solid careers comparable to those of men. Cynthia Sanborn, director of Universidad del Pacifico Research Centre in Lima, Peru, mentions that women who want a career in public policy research have today the same possibilities as men to reach leadership positions. Most research centres in Peru choose their leaders through elections where full members of the institution vote and participate. Nonetheless, one large barrier that women often face is the process to get a doctorate, that involves at least three or four years in a life stage where many prefer to start a family, what creates a disadvantage for them in a sphere where competition for hiring the most prepared is in its highest point.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, women think tank directors have in most cases an outstanding formation, many of them having studied abroad in European and North American universities (9 out of 10 in our list, as of 24 July 2012), and they are attached to the academic world in their countries. There are fewer links than expected between activism and leadership in research institutions, rather having directors who have had a scholar career for a long time and have slowly escalated towards leadership positions. Mubiana Macwan’gi, director of the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia, explains her path to her actual position, citing factors as parental support she received to get further education -which is still the exception for many women-, working hard to get opportunities as studying abroad , as a passion for research she has held since young.

In general, access to higher education is the main tool for women to arrive to build a career in research institutions, as competition around the world requires skills to deal with challenges such as knowledge generation, interacting with foreign cooperation and funding sources, and influence.

We are gradually increasing our list of think tanks led by women and we will focus on other regions. Suggestion about other think tanks led by women around the world that should be added to the list, please contact @onthinktanks

A new BRICS think tank network

The rise of the BRICS bloc in the last decade, since its conception as an economic group by Goldman Sachs in 2001 as a counterbalance to G7 countries in the world scene, has seen a growing cooperation between its members (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, as a country added in later years, South Africa), specially on economic and diplomatic grounds, as well as the building of an institutional framework, having already held four summits, the last one in March in New Delhi. There is more trade within the bloc, estimated to reach USD 500 billion in 2015, and the contact between their governments is ever growing. However, BRICS countries have big differences, among them their political and cultural values, the composition of their economic structures and outreach, and, above all, the lack of a common history (with exception of some bilateral relations). Nonetheless, even if links between these countries are questionable, the group has been consolidating for the last five years.

The recent publication of The BRICS Report, on the occasion of the last summit, calls for a harmonisation of economic and diplomatic policies, as well as for forging stronger links between the five countries. In the Sanya summit in 2011, the declaration included the need of research cooperation, and the formation of meeting groups for think tanks. In November 2011, the BRICS Trade & Economic Research Network was launched in Shanghai by five think tanks:

Although all five of them are focused on different subjects in their own countries, in this agreement they have focused on three objectives related to trade and economics:

  • Promotion of fair markets,
  • Inclusive growth, and
  • Sustainable development.

As reported in their strategy paper, their work will consist of publications, policy research and advocacy, as well as highlighting the role of government funding for the growth of their activities. It is clear that trade tariffs and conditions are a key matter for the BRICS countries, as they face protectionist measures from developed countries in sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, where they are actually more competitive. These agreements for a BRICS research group were confirmed in the New Delhi summit this year, where talks about greater public policy research where on the agenda.

There are other efforts that look for a common BRICS policy and commitment to its development inside those countries has been getting ever stronger. In Brazil, the BRICS Policy Center (BPC), founded by PUC-Rio and the City of Rio de Janeiro, is dedicated to BRICS studies by means of analysis, further cooperation between the governments, and cooperation between their societies. The BPC receives visitor researchers and fellows from the other BRICS countries and they have a very active agenda on economic, commercial, political and cultural subjects, publishing research papers, organising conferences, monitoring work, etc.

This is an interesting transnational initiative in which think tanks have been given a key role by their respective governments. Do think tank networks in other regions play similar roles?

Public funds for public policy research in Latin America: a study by Lardone and Roggero

Think tanks in Latin America are mostly dependent on private and foreign funding, while governments don’t have a policy toward funding them and the social sciences sector as a whole.  This is the conclusion that Martín Lardone and Marcos Roggero came to in Vínculos entre conocimiento y política: el rol de la investigación en el debate public en América Latina (edited by Norma Correa and Enrique Mendizabal). In their study about the role of the government in public policy research funding in Latin America, they found that governments in the region have a narrow view of research promotion so that regular public funding is mainly directed to “hard sciences” –biochemistry, medicine, agriculture, etc.-, leaving a marginal share of funding for the social sciences.

Lardone and Roggero identified two clear research funding mechanisms:

  •  on-budget, programmatic financingon a stable, systematic and structural basis that works along a long-term, permanent policy on research as a tool for development of a country and which has h a fixed allocation in the national budget through ministries, public agencies or universities; and
  • non-programmatic financing thatworks in an unstable and non-systematic way, funding researchers on a project-to-project basis.

The authors concluded that programmatic financing tends to favour research done in universities, well-established entities with fixed budgets, and “hard scientific” research. As an example, only 10% of projects approved by Colombia’s COLCIENCIAS, the national agency responsible for science and technologies, are related to social sciences and education, while the remaining 90% funds natural and exact sciences, engineering, medicine, agriculture, etc.

It is not surprising, either, to find efforts to promote in-house research through public policy research inside ministries and public agencies, such as in Indonesia, which follows a policy of Balitbangs, or government research units.

In Latin America, the large majority of think tanks are private and their finances are weak. They depend on private and foreign funding for international cooperation and foundations from abroad. As mentioned before, think tanks have difficulties to access public funding. The most common way of getting public fund is by offering their own services through short-term contracts, agreements, or sometimes bidding for work in government projects. Unfortunately this means that often projects aren’t longer than a year because governments are subject to one-year budget processes.On the other side, many think tanks in Latin America prefer to be distant from government funds, citing autonomy and independent agenda as key factors for their work.

Nonetheless, various new types of public financing for public policy research are appearing in Latin America, for example:

  1. Governments allocate funds coming from multilateral financers and international organisations (e.g. IADB, World Bank, UNDP) to research.
  2. Governments manage incoming funds from the international cooperation and channelthem to organisations (among them think tanks) through a bidding process. This type of management in being used in Bolivia, through the Vice-Ministry of Public Investment and External Financing. A similar system is employed in Colombia for projects of the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation, where organisations participate on a voluntary basis.
  3. Governments channel their own funds through specialised public agencies, as in Costa Rica (that no longer relies on foreign funds) and Brazil, which has an ad-hoc agency for public policy research.
  4. Governments centralise demands for monitoring and evaluation and outsource this work to think tanks as a permanent policy. This is case of Mexico’s CONEVAL, the social development evaluation agency, and in Chile.
  5. Parliaments decide which think tanks to finance as advisers to groups or commissions. This system has been criticised for benefitting think tanks that are related to political parties, but at the same time it is a way of compensating for the governing party’s access to public agencies and information. This system is applied in Chile.

Monitoring and Evaluation guide for health information

USAID published a Monitoring and Evaluation guide for health information products and services in 2007. It sets to describe what and how to evaluate health information products and services through a framework that clearly separates inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. It seeks to measure their reach, usefulness, use, and collaboration and capacity building attributes, by quantitative, as well as qualitative methods.

This guide focuses on assessing how effective is the way in which information reaches out, by the largest number of possible means, and how it satisfies its users. The guidelines present a range of indicators and offers advice on how each should be measured, clearly outlining their definition, data requirement, data sources, purposes and issues, with examples given at the end of each indicator.

According to Lisa Gosling, the objectives of monitoring and evaluation are ensuring quality, accountability and learning for the benefit of good management. The guide has lists of “dos and don’ts” which encourage the user to be simple, clear and effective, while avoiding the confusion which often accompanies complex reporting.

M&E is seen as an approach to developing a working routine that can be easily traced and managed, thus letting internal (collaborators, directors and members of the organisation), as well as external users (partners, funders or supervising entities) to remain informed about relevant processes and activities.

Significantly, such as in the case of the research based evidence advocacy guide by Young and Quinn, this one also outlines theories of behaviour change and communication. Behaviour change, according to Fishbein et al., implies eight conditions, seen through variables observable on the person who displays a particular behaviour:

  • Intention,
  • Skills,
  • Environmental constrains (direct causes),
  • Attitude,
  • Norms,
  • Self-image,
  • emotion, and
  • Self-efficacy,
The latter two are expected to influence behavioural intentions.
More manuals and guides can be found here.

How can think tanks take advantage of mobile data?

This month’s Alaska Airlines Magazine features an article on mobile technologies applied to research, showing the advances made on data collection on real time, highlighting the ever-shrinking costs of using new technologies, added to widely extended mobile networks around the world, even in developing countries. The author, Dayton Fandray, follows the development of hardware adapted for mobile technology and their use on research. Matthew McKown, a researcher at the Coastal Conservation Action Lab at UCSC who works with Nexleaf Analytics, a non-profit organization that develops mobile sensing technology, in a seabird conservation project:

We went with the mobile phones for a number of reasons. One, they are a mass-produced consumer report (…); they are power-efficient, user friendly and pretty rugged. Capabilities of mobile phones will continue to increase and prices will continue to go down. So we’re getting better answers and reducing costs

These tools have been gradually embraced by scientific and medical academia, the marketing industry as well as development projects, but also are being increasingly used by think tanks for collecting data. Mobile data collecting software is flourishing, with many platforms developed for tasks like surveys, documentation and real-time information.

Clear advantages on using mobile data collection for think tanks include extending the geographic reach of studies to areas that are difficult to cover with traditional methods and safer data transportation, but the most important aspect is real-time work. Global Pulse is an UN-affiliated initiative founded in 2009 by the Secretary-General that intends to impulse mobile technology as a mean of collecting information leading to a better public policy building and more effective and immediate responses to challenges. Global Pulse, which incorporates private actors, partnered in 2010 with, a network promoting social development through mobile technologies, to develop an inventory on mobile data collection projects; mostly on agriculture, health and electoral processes. Global Pulse frequently works through partnerships with specialized teams and organisations, a model that could be followed by think tank for specific subjects.

Undoubtedly, the most important use think tanks could give to mobile technology nowadays is to communicate and interact with users through apps. Mobile apps are increasingly specialised, and the most important think tanks are already launching them, replacing somehow conventional websites. Although think tanks and public policy planning don’t need as many gadgets as natural sciences or medicine research, they could use more cloud computing tools, to which mobile phones and accessories can connect. According to Nick Scott on innovations in internal communications:

Internal communications are becoming harder to sustain, as remote working becomes more common. It is a paradox that increased opportunities for long-distance external communication brought about by the internet are feeding increased internal disconnection.

Another challenge for mobile data as a work tool is its acceptance by the institutions, which may rather prefer other means that work well for them. According to Enrique Mendizabal:

many think tanks are already very successful at communicating with their main audiences. (…) Not ‘doing digital’ (as a proxy of not trying new approaches) often has more to do with a decision to keep doing what works rather than ignorance.

There’s still a long road toward ‘going digital’, and it is starting by its internal and external communications.


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