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Posts tagged ‘Asia’

Meet The On Think Tanks Exchange’s participants

After reviewing the applications 10 candidates will join The On Think Tanks Exchange. The 10 participants include think tankers from Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Hungary, Georgia, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Indonesia. Over the next two years they will come together to share lessons and experiences, learn from each other, and work on collaborative research projects. Read this blog to meet the participants and learn more about the project.

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The onthinktanks interview: Dr Asep Suryahadi

In this interview, SMERU's Director, Dr Asep Suryahadi, describes his motivations for joining the think tank, the centre's history, and its current and future challenges. Pak Asep explains that as a think tank in Indonesia SMERU must balance a number of sometimes competing expectations from multiple stakeholders.

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The role of think tanks in the South Korean presidential race

The Korea Herald has recently published a piece on how South Korean presidential hopefuls for this year´s presidential race have been increasingly relying on public policy institutes for their campaigns. Think tanks in South Korea, according to Seoul National University politics professor Kang Won-taek, are for the most part linked to the state or to prominent political figures, such as the three strongest presidential candidates this year, Park Geun-hye, Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in. They are closely involved in developing the candidates´ campaign strategies, and those members of the think tank that are key players in the campaign usually end up in important posts in the new administration.

Park Geun – hye, for example, is relying mostly on a think tank called the Nation’s Future Research Centre, launched in 2010. They were responsible for creating the “battle of welfare policies” that took over the general elections this year. In 2007, they were also behind Park´s pledge to reduce taxes and regulations and to create a stronger legal order.

Park´s party comrades also enjoy support from several other think tanks:

Park’s in-house rival Gyeonggi Gov. Kim Moon-soo works closely with Gyeonggi Research Institute, where Seoul National University professor Jwa Seung-hee is the head of the board of trustees. The institute has reportedly been designing strategies for Kim to differentiate himself from frontrunner Park.

As for Moon Jae – in, the candidate the for the main opposition party Democratic United Party, he is supported by the Damjaengi Forum, which is chaired by former Korean Red Cross president Han Wang – sang. And while Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, has not publicly declared his political aspirations and intentions yet, many are speculating that even though the Ahn Cheol – soo Foundation and AhnLab Inc. remains his strongest base, he will be seeking mentoring mostly from certain individuals.

It is not only these presidential candidates that are closely linked to think tanks, however. DUP senior adviser Sohn Hak – kyu has received much attention from the East Asia Future Foundation, while former chairman of the DUP Chung Sye-kyun campaigns on the platform designed by People’s Turn.

As we can see, these think tanks are acting not so much as independent research institutions but as support groups for specific politicians. While it is an interesting development, it still raises some concern regarding these institutions´ credibility and intellectual autonomy. In order to assure this, they must show that they are capable of taking the initiative and guaranteeing the quality of their research and proposals.

 

Foreign policy think tanks in developing countries

During the last couple of months we have been compiling a list of think tanks dedicated to foreign policy in developing nations. The idea behind this project was to get a better sense of the kind of topics that command the attention of researchers and policy makers when it comes to these nations’ relations to other countries and their interests in the international political arena. We were interested in this type of think tank in particular because, unlike their peers in the social and economic policy fields, domestic, rather than international, funders commonly fund these. And the search for sustainable and domestic sources of funding for think tanks in developing countries is a key concern for onthinktanks.org. The information that we have gathered from this first attempt at an annotated list of foreign policy think tanks has proven to be quite interesting, not only because of what we have found regarding the kind of topics they dedicate themselves to, but also because it brings up issues we have touched upon in the past, such as the use of social media and the nature of their funding. This post provides an analysis of the former.

One of the findings of the exercise is that foreign policy think tanks in developing nations are mostly focused on regional affairs. They care foremost about what is going on in their backyards, and so the topics they choose to research have to do with regional politics. For example, South Asian think tanks have much to do with security studies, be it traditional security or human security. Pakistani and Indian think tanks in particular deal with these issues, and are also interested in ethnic conflict, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. This is to be expected, as these are also the main concerns of the region. Most Middle Eastern think tanks deal with the Arab–Israeli conflict, particularly those that are of countries directly involved in it. Curiously, they do not seem to focus as much on security studies, when common sense would believe it would be a main point of interest, regarding the volatility of the region.

Latin American foreign policy think tanks dedicate their efforts towards regional cooperation, economic integration, democracy studies, and defense. This is probably the case because there is a current regional integration process going on, UNASUR, and because this region has always been concerned with inserting itself into the international economic system, as well as with democratic stability. Also interesting is that most Latin American think tanks are hosted by universities, which is a good indication that foreign policy is still more of an academic pursuit and that there is, generally, little room for (or interest in) influencing public policy.

We found very few foreign policy think tanks in Africa: our list only includes South Africa. The two think tanks included work on issues such as peacekeeping and conflict management, arms control and disarmament, refugees and internally displaced persons, and economic integration: all relevant topics to African politics today.

Southeast Asian institutions are also mainly interested in national defense, ASEAN membership and impact, and Asia Pacific security. Why so much focus on these issues? There has currently been a significant arms race going on in this part of the world, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog Asia Unbound pointed out in 2010:

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 alone, with Vietnam recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian submarines and jetfighters designed for attacking ships. Other recent buyers have included Malaysia, which recently spent nearly $1 billion on new submarines of its own, and Thailand, which has drawn up its own shopping list of submarines and more advanced jet fighters, while Indonesia and Singapore also have announced recent sizable arms purchases.

Countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are arming up to send a signal to a rising China that they will continue to protect their strategic interests and their claims to energy resources in areas like the South China Sea, the Mekong basin, and other regions. And though China has not deviated from its increasingly aggressive approach to Southeast Asia, these arms figures should give it pause.

Another explanation for why there seem to be so many foreign policy and security focused think tanks in this region is these countries’ developmental state and the regional dynamics that emerged between them. Their developmental status and proximity to each other has caused them to be in constant competition and so their relations with each other, as well as their security, are a main point of concern.

Another fact that called our attention was the high number of foreign policy think tanks in China. These, of course, are all either totally government-funded or have some link to the state. As mentioned in a previous post, Chinese think tanks are expected to conduct research and policy analysis on domestic, regional and global issues, assisting the government in policy formulation. This investment clearly signals that China is looking for a position of leadership in the future and explains the wide variety of topics that its think tanks focus on: new trends in international trade, security, Sino-American relations, regional cooperation, and most telling of all, regional studies. All of the think tanks included in the list had significant departments on most of the regions of the world, which suggests that the Chinese government wants to be well informed far beyond its backyard.

Finally, it appears that foreign policy think tanks go beyond regional interests when their own nations have broader aspirations. The Chinese case is clear, but this can also be said for South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. Mexico´s close ties to the United States may explain academic interest in foreign policy affairs; as for Brazil, it is known that it looks to lead Latin America, particularly through UNASUR. Also, it is safe to say that South Africa is one of the most developed countries of Africa, and so researchers can branch out and dedicate themselves to topics that for the most part dominate African think tanks, like economic development.

In future posts we will explore other aspects of this community of think tanks. If you would like to contribute to the list please get in contact with a.moncada56@gmail.com / @Andriu56, comment this blog, or simply update the list directly on Wikipedia (and in the meantime help make knowledge public).

Call for proposals for peer assistance for African and Asian think tanks

CIPPEC and GDNet have launched a call for peer assistance between African and Asian think tanks and their peers in Latin America. Its general objective is to help strengthen African and Asian centres by sharing knowledge and experience from Latin America.

The centres in Africa and Asia can apply to visit a centre in Latin America for 1 week to learn about strategic planning, strategic communications, fundraising and programme management, policy influence action planning, networking, and monitoring and evaluation of policy influence actions.

You can download the terms of reference here.

Think Tanks: At Work – 2010-2011 Think Tank Initiative Annual Report

Yesterday I mentioned the latest TTI annual report on a post that put forward some ideas to be considered, hopefully, by the TTI.

The report has now been published on line, including a version in Spanish.

I had a chance to read it and have to say that it get very close to being a report about think tanks as much as a report about the initiative itself. It offers accounts from various think tanks, a review of the areas of work and focus of the grantees (it would be great to play a bit with that data -for instance, science and technology is largely absent; with some exceptions), and some interesting information about assumptions underpinning the initiative.

There are also some very specific examples of how the think tanks in the initiative have used the core funds they have received:

The Ugandan Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in Kenya have purchased costly statistical and modelling software. The simple ability to afford the appropriate tools has led to the production of more robust research.

The Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF), in Tanzania, reduced its share of commissioned work and is now focusing on a number of strategic projects. What used to stand alone as a commissioned research unit has now been reintegrated into the unit responsible for research and publications.

The Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), in Ghana, has built new relationships with public and private media to better communicate its research results to the policy community, civil society organizations, and the private sector.

The African Institute for Applied Economics (AIAE), in Nigeria, has improved its governance systems and better communicates with and reports to its Board of Directors, which has resulted in increasing support from its governing bodies.

Fundación ARU in Bolivia, one of the program’s younger institutions, has begun setting up the organizational structure that will sustain its policy research activities: it has defined its long-term research agenda, increased its pool of researchers, and designed a new governance structure that separates the strategic and executive functions.

Another Bolivian institution, the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados en Desarrollo (INESAD), has seen its visibility increase through being associated with the Think Tank Initiative. New donors have approached the institution for the first time to explore partnerships.

Grupo FARO, in Ecuador, has created a new Research Director position, which in turn has supported the implementation of formal systems of research quality control and support for researchers, resulting in improved research products and dissemination.

The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) has adapted the Initiative’s monitoring and evaluation tools to improve its own internal organizational performance monitoring system. The discussion and planning that went into the development of this monitoring and evaluation system has created awareness of organizational strengths and weaknesses among the staff, which has also increased motivation and pride.

The Public Affairs Centre (PAC), in India, has organized exchange platforms where staff from like-minded organizations based in other countries, and even other regions, visit the institution for mutual capacity building.

These are interesting ‘findings’. It shows the different types of priorities that think tanks have: improving their research capacity, their organisational structure and governance, their communications and engagement, and defining a strategic direction. There are other examples not mentioned in the report: FUSADES and KIPPRA have organised study tours to visit organisations in other countries. GRADE is working on its research agenda. IEP is working on its communications and M&E strategy. Et cetera.

Read the full report in English and Spanish.

China’s Think Tanks – Multifaceted and Multi-Dimensional Policy Actors

By Karthik Nachiappan, Research Associate at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Seldom do we pass a day without a major cover story on China’s rise and its growing global influence. Almost every aspect of its ascent is dissected and deciphered to no end. One of the key domestic forces within China engaged in this effort are think tanks. Since opening up in 1978, China’s think tanks have found a new lease of life. They are increasingly expected and relied upon to assume and fulfill several important roles – conducting research and policy analysis on salient domestic, regional and global issues, assisting government ministries in policy formulation, informing and advising key governmental officials on key policy challenges, conducting roundtables and dialogues, etc.

To our benefit, the scholarship on China’s think tanks has considerably advanced our knowledge of them, their role and of course, influence. The most recent paper in this regard upholds this trend. Xufeng Zhu’s recent paper ‘Government Advisors or Public Advocates – Roles of Think Tanks from the Perspective of Regional Variations’ not only deepens our understanding of China’s think tank arena but more importantly, does so by introducing other variables into the picture, notably geography via regional knowledge capacity to comprehend the role and influence of think tanks.

By doing so, it robustly maps the context and unpacks it to see how contextual circumstances affect think tank roles and influence. Given the apolitical and anti-contextual nature of much of the think tank literature, Zhu’s effort is laudable and something to seriously reflect and build upon as we grapple with the influx of think tanks in the developing world, understanding what they do and how they can or do gain policy influence. These issues will gain greater significance given the amounts of funds being channeled to bolster the capacity of think tanks across the global south.

At the outset, Zhu introduces the major types of think tanks that exist within China – Semi-official think tanks and Private, non-governmental think tanks. The former largely functions as ‘external’ brains of the government having well ironed administrative linkages to government and government officials, deriving their mandate from their patrons. Non-governmental entities, on the other hand, are principally identified by their lack of such official linkages and their consequent ability to set and execute their own research agenda. They also seek financing from different sources given their non-governmental character.

From here, Zhu deduces that think tanks in China largely play three roles as – Advisors to the government, Academics in research universities and Advocates in the public sphere. Most think tanks simultaneously discharge these responsibilities, as Zhu states, but what determines which hat gains precedence? Context. To further elaborate, Zhu operationalizes the context through two variables – geography and power.

On the first count, Zhu introduces the concept of regional knowledge capacity or the capacity of that region to acquire, absorb and communicate knowledge. In regions where regional knowledge capacity is high or in other words, where ideas gain traction by being communicated, exchanged and absorbed intensively, eventually resulting in policy. Secondly, the administrative linkage matters. Independent of the regional knowledge atmosphere, think tanks gain leverage by exercising their administrative linkage to ply their research and ideas into the policy process. Of importance here is proximity – to the officials in power and structures of power.

Employing this framework, Zhu posits that for semi-official think tanks, administrative linkages matter more than the regional knowledge capacity. As a result, they principally function as ‘advisors’ in the Chinese policy arena but also transmit their research into the public sphere thereby becoming ‘advocates’ and also presenting at universities becoming ‘academics.’ But their dominant identity is that of advisors. On the other hand, for non-governmental think tanks that lack official linkages primarily rely on advancing their research into the public sphere that renders them as ‘advocates’ first. For these advocates, their influence is therefore contingent on the regional knowledge capacity since they hope to gain atmospheric influence on policy, not direct.

Zhu’s approach and analysis is innovative. Instead of blithely accepting that think tanks all over the world are static, monolithic entities whose role and functions are pre-determined, we inductively arrive at a far different and more grounded account of think tanks, what they do and how they operate in idiosyncratic political environments.

Another takeaway from the article is the importance of the context in understanding, analyzing and gauging think tank activity. Context matters. And here Zhu unpacks that through two factors – power relations in the form of administrative linkages to governing ministries and geography manifested through the capacity and uptake of knowledge in different locales.

These two factors, as seen, largely influence how Chinese think tanks function. Geographic variables are gradually gaining salience in explaining variations across growth patterns. As scholars like Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida have argued, the close and intensive enmeshing of ideas, high-skill and labor within a spatial area generate higher grown returns as compared to those that are relatively less well endowed in those respects. Within the study of think tanks, one can perhaps credibly argue that spaces that are deftly entwine ideas and power will be more propitious for think tanks to leave their imprint on public policy.

Finally, Zhu’s approach is advantageous in that it can be faithfully applied across contexts to gauge think tank role and presence. As donors explore different approaches to evaluate whether think tanks they fund are influential or not, it is necessary to employ a more critical toolkit to understand and probe the power structures that determine the scope and content of public policy, and to discern the role that think tanks, who are nested in those structures play.

A new think tank model: a focus on productive sectors

A few posts ago I wrote about the idea of setting up think tanks around natural resources (although the idea is perfectly valid for any productive sector).

[Sector] Think tanks can be a great engine of change. They can take on the interests of the industry and the wider public and pursue policy options that governments are sometimes unable to contemplate until they are sure things. Think tanks can help to establish alliances with peer organisations in other countries without the bureaucratic difficulties that the public sector has or the concerns for competition that are common in the private sector. Unlike lobbies or interest groups they can remain neutral or at least ensure that different options are considered and discussed publicly. Their interests, if well-funded and managed, can the long-term interests of their sectors and countries.

I even suggested a few candidates for think tanks in many developing countries looking at Tourism, mining, tobacco, oil and gas, financial services, et cetera. And I think I will add tourism for my plans for Peru.

I also provided some ideas of what the model could look like:

The initial investments need not be terribly large. These think tanks could start quite modestly by providing a medium to channel knowledge and expertise from around the world into the national and local policy debate. A few good analysts and a competent policy communicator would probably do for the first year. An alliance with a university could create opportunities for original research being produced in-country and to channel new knowledge into the education system through undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Partnerships with the private sector would be essential to ensure that their work is relevant to the sector.

These think tanks could focus their attention at three levels:

  1. The policy environment: research and analysis to develop recommendations directed at improving the policy environment that affects the sector
  2. The business environment: research, analysis and direct support aimed at strengthening the capacity of existing and future businesses to further develop the industry –sustainably, responsibly, etc.
  3. The art and science of the sector: (maybe in the long-term) aimed at improving the evidence base of the sector –for example, research into new varieties of timber, into new ways of treating mineral waste, into the commercialisation of new agricultural products, the use of new seeds, etc.

I have now given this a bit more thought and I think there is much more to this than I first considered.

Policy coherence

Governments often struggle to get their many ministries and public institutions to work together. Government sectors are usually matched by think tanks and consultancies that arrange their businesses along the same lines: health, education, transport, natural resources, taxing, etc. If there is a ministry then it is likely that there will be a think tank programme to match it (or at least an NGO to campaign about something). In an attempt to address this compartmentalisation of policy, a number of ‘cross-cutting’ issues have been promoted by donors, governments, NGOs and think tanks alike: gender, governance, human rights, etc.. But these have done little to bring coherence to public policy. In general, these specialisations only help to segment the market even further and create silos promoted by new ‘experts’.

Productive sector think tanks could be the solution. To strengthen the tourism industry, for instance, policy recommendations would have to involve not just the Ministry of Tourism, but also transport (we need roads, airports, airline routes, etc.), education (we need hospitality graduates), health and sanitation (we need to make sure tourists do not catch some strange disease), environment (we need to preserve the environment to attract more tourists and ensure that tourism does not affect it), culture, trade, taxation, labour, etc.

Unlike the usual approach of trying to get them all to coordinate at a fairly abstract level (‘develop the country’, ‘reduce poverty’, ‘meet the MDGs’, etc.) in this case they would be working together to achieve much more tangible objectives: to make the industry competitive, to increase the number of tourists, to develop new tourism attractions, etc. It would then be much easier for think tanks to make very clear and costed recommendations -clear and tangible enough for policymakers to get on with them and know exactly how they are contributing towards the stated objectives.

Developing an expert cadre

Sector think tanks could serve another important function: to develop new generations of experts. With a focus on the sector, your economists, engineers, lawyers, medical doctors, agronomists, etc. could quickly develop their analytical skills, learn about good practices and lessons from around the world, establish and strengthen links and networks with more experienced national, regional and international experts, and become experts in their own right.

Both the public and the private sectors would benefit from this: the public sector would have a pick of competent analysts and policymakers, while the private sector may find in these new experts excellent strategists and consultants.

If these career paths are properly developed then young graduates would naturally covet these positions and the think tanks would find it increasingly easier to find the right staff for their purposes.

Is this just another way of funding lobbies?

No. First of all, I am not suggesting that these think tanks should be supported by Aid (they could be given some seed funding but in the end their main funders should be the industry and the government through no-strings-attached arrangements).

Secondly, the point of setting up a think tank is to make it independent of the individual and private interests of the sector and its corporate members. A think tank, a not-for -profit, is governed by different rules than those governing lobbies or corporations, and can be expected to be public in its dealings. Whereas private companies tend to hide their influencing practices, what the think tank does, how it pays for it, its research base, its links, etc. can be known to all.

Finally, setting up and funding a sector think tank can also help the industry itself by promoting better business practices (better wages, environmentally friendly practices, etc.). In this sense it would be in fact advocating in favour of the public rather than the industry.

 

What do you think? Is there any more to this? Is it worth pursuing further? I would really like to know what you think.

Got resources? Think tank them

The natural resources curse is well-known by now. Countries with lots of mineral (or almost any other natural resource) wealth often find themselves cruising down the roads of corruption, violence and underdevelopment. It is as if they were dismissing all the warnings on the side of the road: Warning! Take the next exit out of here! Think before you keep going! Et cetera.

Developed countries have already been down these roads but some have managed to get out in time. How did they do it? One way forward –not the only but certainly a very powerful one- is to try to move past the gold fever and think more carefully about what to do with the gold. The key word here, of course, is think.

The University of Dundee in Scotland is host to students from all over the world who travel there to read courses related to the mining sector. Many Peruvians study there –I know a few of them. Last I heard, though, there aren’t any mines in Dundee were they can practice and experience, first hand, the industry they are studying. So why would a Peruvian leave a country rich in mines to study in Scotland where the mining industry is all but a thing of the past?

The answer is simple: Peru does not have a world-class university that specialises in mining.

Even without any serious mining, Scotland remains as a leading force in the sector. It trains the next generations of mining entrepreneurs, engineers and policymakers. Scotland, through its own experts and the ones it sends out to the world, is shaping global processes and exerting enormous leverage. And all of this guarantees that there is a sustainable British mining industry that continues to mine the world all over. But not in Britain.

Peru could follow this path, too. Millions of dollars in tax made from the mining industry have been earmarked for capital investments in the regions were mines are based. Capital investments could be easily reinterpreted as human capital investment and, almost overnight, large (and I mean large) amounts of money could be available to overhaul local universities and set up new institutions (think tanks included) to transform the sector from an extractive to a knowledge economy. I know there are innumerable bureaucratic hurdles; but many this is a reasons for the private sector to take the lead rather than shrug and keep funding palliative petty projects that address immediate needs but leave little behind.

The same is true to other resources that could be the basis of sustainable and job creating sectors for many developing countries.

El Bulli, arguably the world’s best restaurant, closed its doors last month to become a culinary think tank. No wonder Spain has a strong tourism industry. In Peru, where food has become the source of great pride we ought to be following this example and look to setting up new institutions to think the future of the gastronomic sector. A food industry that expands beyond the kitchens and into global consultancies, renowned academic degrees, and a tourism industry that is adaptable and sustainable. So far this role seems to have fallen on celebrity chefs like Gaston Acurio -but there is so much one man can do.

Following this basic idea, I have been working with a friend to set up a forestry centre in Peru and I have just taken up the idea of a coffee think tank to strengthen the coffee sector (not just the selling of coffee but mostly its production).

Think tanks can be a great engine of change. They can take on the interests of the industry and the wider public and pursue policy options that governments are sometimes unable to contemplate until they are sure things. Think tanks can help to establish alliances with peer organisations in other countries without the bureaucratic difficulties that the public sector has or the concerns for competition that are common in the private sector. Unlike lobbies or interest groups they can remain neutral or at least ensure that different options are considered and discussed publicly. Their interests, if well-funded and managed, can the long-term interests of their sectors and countries.

Donors have been quick to fund think tank dealing with economic and social policy issues in many developing countries but few have an industrial specialism –these tend to be funded as part of international research programmes but there is an obvious focus on agriculture and poverty reduction.

Industry specific think tanks’ objectives, on the other hand, ought to consider poverty reduction as an ideal by-outcome but not their main one. Their primary objective should be the development of a sustainable and world-class sector. Good practices will undoubtedly bring along more jobs and increase opportunities. Not only that, but universities, think tanks, and consultancies can all create new jobs and incentives for further specialisation. They will imagine and develop new businesses around the resource and help steer the sector into its future.

These industry focused think tanks would make a great team alongside the economic and social policy think tanks that we are more accustomed to.

So why not fund some of the following (this, of course, applies to more than one country):

  • A tourism think tank for Kenya;
  • A few mining think tanks for Zambia;
  • A tobacco (and related crops) think tank for Malawi;
  • A few oil and gas think tanks for Nigeria;
  • A financial services think tank for Ghana;
  • A forestry think tank for Indonesia;
  • A coffee think tank for Peru;
  • Et cetera

The initial investments need not be terribly large. These think tanks could start quite modestly by providing a medium to channel knowledge and expertise from around the world into the national and local policy debate. A few good analysts and a competent policy communicator would probably do for the first year. An alliance with a university could create opportunities for original research being produced in-country and to channel new knowledge into the education system through undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Partnerships with the private sector would be essential to ensure that their work is relevant to the sector.

Above all they should be based (or at least have a base) where the resource exists and not just in a fancy office close to the capital’s poshest districts. We want, after all, to create centres of excellence that bring policy, practice, and research together.

These think tanks could focus their attention at three levels:

  1. The policy environment: research and analysis to develop recommendations directed at improving the policy environment that affects the sector.
  2. The business environment: research, analysis and direct support aimed at strengthening the capacity of existing and future businesses to further develop the industry –sustainably, responsibly, etc.
  3. The art and science of the sector: (maybe in the long-term) aimed at improving the evidence base of the sector –for example, research into new varieties of timber, into new ways of treating mineral waste, into the commercialisation of new agricultural products, the use of new seeds, etc.

So if you have resources and do not know how to use them more sustainably and in a way that will guarantee benefits for all, instead to trying to come up with a master plan that is likely to fail (let’s be honest, we do cannot plan for all eventualities) why not consider developing a knowledge industry around those questions and let it find the way?

Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition

This paper by Diane Stone is a few years old but it is still worth reading: Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition (2005). It was commissioned by the Japan Fund for the Public Policy Training symposium,“How to Strengthen Policy-Oriented Research and Training in Viet Nam”, held in Hanoi on 31 August 2005.

From the conclusions, I’d like to share two very important points:

A question she was asked to answer was: “What are the attributes of an effective think tank?” Her response: There are no technocratic ‘quick fixes’:

(I’ll take some liberties in the text below to make it more generalisable -but for the full text you can go straight to the conclusions page: the challenges of policy relevance.)

Focusing on internal management issues can not be considered in isolation from the wider political and economic context. Management is important to the sustainability and quality of work of individual institutes. Nevertheless, it is also essential to consider all institutes in aggregate. For example, in Vietnam, the strong departmental affiliations and the weak interaction with research counterparts in other departments points to a broader governance problem. The Americans would see this dynamic the result of departments set up as (vertical) ‘stove-piping’ without sufficient structures for (horizontal) coordination, and the British would describe it similarly as a ‘silo’ structure and absence of ‘joined-up-government’. In short, the effectiveness of Vietnamese institutes can be undermined by the very architecture of the state. Nevertheless, there are some actions that are within the scope of Vietnamese think tank processes. These are relevant to other countries and include:

  • Attention to quality control and other management issues is an enduring and constant fact of organisational life.
  • Diversification of funding base. The most stable and independent institutes are those with a mix of revenue sources. Developing new revenue sources takes time and it should be done without damaging an institute’s reputation and quality of product.
  • Some (not all) think tanks (and not all the time) need to become more transnational in their activities and or engagements to stay abreast of global policy debates. This can be achieved via professional exchanges, fellowships, graduate study overseas as well as involvement in international research partnerships and global (or regional) policy networks.
  • Deepening and widening of policy communities. By developing more horizontal relationships with counterparts in other institutes it is possible to expand beyond the vertical organisation based on departmental or party bureaucratic lines of authority. This can also include engagement with some private researchers in the business sector, the media or certain NGOs.

Then, on the question of independence, Diane Stone wrote:

Independence must be assessed on more than one criteria whilst recognising that calls for independence can sometimes conflict with and contradict calls for policy relevance. Dimensions of independence can include:

  1. Political independence from vested interests
  2. Legal independence
  3. Financial independence
  4. Scholarly autonomy and ‘freedom of research’

A western think tank may trumpet its status as a non-profit organisation with no affiliations to political party or business interests. Yet, funding dependence on one client – such as a government department – will raise questions about freedom to set research agendas and subtle forms of self-censorship in ensuring the delivery of desired research results. In the end, perfect and complete independence is neither possible nor desirable for organisations such as think tanks. Instead, independence, autonomy and scholarly freedom is based on strong professional norms, (institutional) relationships open to scrutiny and tolerant but vigilant political cultures.

 

 

 

 

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