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Posts tagged ‘Chile’

Think tank networks as government policy

Donors are always keen to fund organisations working in 'networks' or 'partnerships' but are not willing to support the long and unpredictable processes that lead to their formation. The Chilean Government, not strange to innovation in the field of research, has launched a competition to do precisely that: support links between Chilean and foreign centres.

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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.

IDRC has been keeping ideas alive -literally

IDRC has made a rather interesting claim: Canadian support to researchers in the 1970s and 1980s Chile kept ideas alive, quite literally.

Few scholars were more under threat than social scientists, whose probing work often challenged the regimes themselves. About 3,000 social scientists left Chile after the 1973 coup. In 1980, more than 500 professors were fired from Chilean universities in a single semester.

IDRC responded by approving a special program of grants to research centres and individual researchers in Chile. Support also went to researchers in Argentina and Uruguay, which were in similar turmoil. The goal: preserve the spirit and skills of independent inquiry against determined and entrenched military dictatorships.

Of course IDRC was not alone in this. Other funders played an important role too. And most important of all, the academics that IDRC and others supported were there to be supported. Since the 1950s, the Chilean government had invested quite heavily in its social sciences, founding and funding entirely new careers and setting up several new academic departments and research centres across its universities.

Chile, by the time Pinochet came to power, had the best academia in Latin America.

An excellent account of all this is provided by Jeffrey Puryear in his must read book: Thinking Politics: intellectuals and democracy in Chile. In his book he argues that the most important contribution that think tanks made to Chilean politics was not intellectual but psychological. Through their meetings and events they helped to develop the spaces and values necessary for democracy. This, more than any specify policy change (impact in donor-speak), is think tanks’ added value to Chilean society.

How to influence difficult publics? Lessons from the Chilean media

In any planning process, a significant proportion of the effort is dedicated towards developing influencing strategies for the most difficult publics. If you were using a tool like the Alignment, Interest and Influence Matrix (AIIM), this would be the actors in the Not Aligned but Interested quadrant.

After a recent visit to Zambia where I was told many times of think tanks concerned with the way in which the government may take criticism, I think this paper may be of great relevance.

David Hojman’s study of Semana Económica’s (Chilean newspaper El Mercurio’s editorial page) policy influencing strategy offers some lessons and practical advice.*

A recent article in reminded me of it. “The Influencing Machine”: How the media works, is a comic book from Brooke Gladstone, co-host of “On the Media“. In it, she tackles a series of key historical events to explain the workings of the media –its dilemmas, challenges and opportunities: but mostly, its realities.

Hojman’s is a more academic approach to the workings of the media. In his paper he attempts to answer the following questions:

  • What were the messages that Semana Económica (SE) was trying to put forward?
  • Did the messaged change over time? What were the patterns of this change? How were they related to the acquisition of new information?
  • Why did SE identify some individuals?
  • Who were the messages addressed to, what were the messages objectives, and were the messages successful in achieving their objectives?

In developing the theoretical framework he explored repeated cooperative games, informational lobbies, asymmetric information games, signalling games, and strategic information transmission. All of these analyse, in different ways, the relations between the sender and the receiver of a strategic message.

He assumed that even though the sender and the receiver have different agendas there must be some overlap for there to be communication (this goes hand in hand with views that there is no actual gap between research and policy). And so he considers the following questions:

  • What do they have in common?
  • What is the cost of sending the message?
  • How much is at stake for the sender?
  • And what are the receiver prior beliefs, both about the message subject matter and about the sender?

His interpretation of the theory and answers to these questions suggests that: The outcome of the interaction between the sender and he receiver could be either: no collaboration or collaboration, and as long as collaboration is preferred, the sender will communicate and the receiver will receive. Now, the receiver might not do what it is told to do, but the sender, if the sender is smart, will not pressure too much. And it will not desist in its communications because it recognises that, in some cases, some message is better than silence.

In his study, the sender is SE and Chile’s centre-left coalition government (that took power in the 1990s after Chile returned to democracy) is the receiver. His answers to the questions posed above provide useful lessons and advice:

  • What were the messages that SE was trying to put forward?

The messages put forward were consistent and specific. Together they represented a strong argument. Hojman summarises the key message as: “You are doing well, but you could be doing even better”. More specifically, SE advocated for:

    1. The labour market must be flexible
    2. Taxes should be low
    3. The Chilean economy should be more open to international trade
    4. There should be more privatisations
    5. Some of the current government measures against poverty and inequality may be counterproductive
    6. Financial modernization and the liberalization of the capital account are urgent tasks
  • Did the messages change over time? What were the patterns of this change? How were they related to the acquisition of new information?

This is an interesting question. Should a think tank maintain the same message, or should this be tailored to specific moments or cycles? SE used several approaches.

Seasonality was an important aspect of the strategy –changing the messages to coincide with real processes and events. While the budget was being prepared (August to September) SE would write about lower taxes and less government expenditure. In October or November the comments would reflect the editor’s disappointment at the budget.

Also some seasonality was observed following annual official announcement of GDP, growth and balance of payments results, when SE would show its disappointment.

However, disappointment was always inviting rather than insulting. The editorialists did not want to lose the sensitive (opposing –the centre-left coalition sympathisers) part of SE’s readership. So after hardening a position, they would then soften it up after a while.

An interesting dynamic in any information lobbying process is that as it progresses, more information becomes available –about the sender, the receivers, about themselves (and even the public gains more about them too). For example, SE learned that the GDP estimates produced by the government were always underestimated so that it could resist pressures to spend more –and because if they were in fact higher it was then able spend the extra money freely.

This type of learning is different form what is behind cyclical messages like the ones about the budget.

SE also learned that although the government agreed the need to reduce tariffs for agricultural products it was unable to do it for political reasons; and that the only times it could was when there was a perception by the general public that this was necessary to, for instance, secure an important trade deal that public agreed with.

The process also implies learning by the SE about itself and how the message changes its users –from ethical solutions to drug trafficking to liberalizing the trade.

As a consequence, SE changed its message over time.

  • Why did SE identify some individuals?

Individuals were singled out when a policy measure had been adopted or proposed by them and that the editorialist approved off. However, if it disapproved with a policy it was hardly ever personalised.

Individuals were never praised in isolation of a policy. This provided clear signals to policymakers who wanted positive references in the media but did not alienate those who did not follow the SE line.

  • Who were the messages addressed to, what were the messages objectives, and were the messages successful in achieving their objectives?

The messages had several objectives: to transmit information, to affect and change economic policy in the short term, to educate and form opinion in a longer term perspective, to congratulate those who have designed or implemented any particular policies that meet with the editorialist’s approval, and to contribute to the creation of strategic and tactical alliances in support of particular policies, over and above narrow political affiliations.

How successful were they? The only clear success identified by Hojman was SE’s call, on October 1994, for more checks and controls on government expenditure by congress; almost a year later, on September 1995, SE was able to report that this had happened.

In the other cases where a policy promoted by SE was adopted it was not possible to say whether this was because of SE or if the government would have done it anyway. Because of the internal dynamics of the coalition government, it is not possible to isolate the role of this particular actor.

A key aspect of SE’s strategy was not what it said but what it did not say, and why. This had a significant effect on the relationship between SE and the government.

Above all, SE showed that it was possible for two agendas (that of the centre-left and the right) to overlap. Its cyclical and more learned interventions provided the government with clear signals of how to be rewarded but gave it the confidence that it would not be punished (or criticised) randomly.

For many newspapers in developing countries where the relationship with the government is clearly confrontational SE’s experience offers direct lessons. Many think tanks could learn from it, too.

Hojman, D. E. (1997). El Mercurio’s Editorial Page (“La Semana Economica”) and Neoliberal Policy Making in Today’s Chile. In W. Fowler (Ed.), Ideologues and Ideologies in Latin America. Westport: Greenwood Press.

A ‘punchy’ think tank debate

Some time ago I reported on the Battle of Ideas organised in London where a number of think tanks went at each other on key policy issues. The programme for this year is now out. Another good idea comes form the British think tank Policy Exchange: The Policy Fight Club.

This might seem like a gimmick but it is actually a particularly interesting approach to addressing the public education role of think tanks. Think tank events are often organised as key note speaker-led panels: one main speaker, some commentators, then the audience gets to ask questions. But real policy debate is nothing like that. Policy debate is messy and chaotic -it is often confrontational. And when it matters most it is even more polarised.

So think tanks have a duty (I think, you might disagree) not just to present information but to present it in a manner that contributes towards improving the quality of the debate -and the policy process.

As Jeffrey Puryear argued, the most interesting and valuable contributions of think tanks may not be intellectual but psychological: the hundreds of events and seminars that Chilean think tanks organised throughout the 1980s helped to restore the mutual trust and understanding missing from Chilean politics and that had led to the rupture of democratic order.

Learning how to develop and use arguments, how to adapt them, communicate to different audiences, incorporate new ideas, defend one’s own beliefs, etc. are not matters that should be quickly dismissed. How we communicate is as (if not more) important than what we say.

Evo, think tanks and policy in Bolivia

Something for the weekend: This paper on the role of think tanks in Bolivian politics by Rafael Loayza Bueno and Ajoy Datta, has just been published by ODI. It was a particularly satisfying moment when Rafael, after working on it during a Hansard Fellowship internship at RAPID, told me that when I first suggested that he should write about think tanks and policies in Bolivia he thought nothing would come out of it; he had proven himself wrong.

Why is this important? Well, because it is a small step in making this a ‘researchable issue’ (as Norma Correa said). Now Rafael is back in Bolivia thinking of think tanks.

The paper is an interesting account of the role of research in Bolivian policymaking -something many people would doubt given the strong ideological messages we hear about how policymaking is done there.

On the surface, the role of knowledge and evidence in Bolivia’s political landscape appears to be minimal. However, over the years, international donors have invested plenty of economic resources into developing think tanks that produce both knowledge and evidence. This paper seeks to examine the utilisation and impact of this knowledge in Bolivia’s recent political history, as well as any links with political institutions. It explores how Evo Morales came to power through the support of indigenous social movements and their relationship with think tanks.

But think tanks are also ideological (and so are donors, as Rafael has found out) and so their contribution to policymaking cannot be dismissed on these grounds. On donors:

International actors played a key role in supporting the production of relevant knowledge. Neoliberal think tanks received funding from the World Bank, the IMF, IADB, CAF while think tanks in support of indigenous social movements received funding from several European donors. They also received support from the Anti-globalisation movement and the World Social Forum (WSF). And just as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz provided policy inputs during the neoliberal era, celebrity academics such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt came in support of Evo Morales’ political project. Think tanks often provided cadres of policy-makers in both the neoliberal era and once Morales assumed presidency.

This is very important because the involvement of these very same actors can explain the rise of experts and think tanks in much of Latin America. Roderic Camp wrote that the political elite in Mexico came from fewer than two dozen, especially Ivy League, universities. And Jeffrey Puryear’s account of the rise of think tanks in Chile also draws a straight line towards a small number of institutions in the United States and Europe (although this is a much more diverse landscape than the one presented by Camp). What is significant here is that when donors say that they do not do politics they are either lying or refuse to see the obvious truth: research is political.

We should be paying more attention to political foundations and the work they have done to develop political systems -including research capacity.

Andrew Rich, Donald Abelson and Kent Weaver have written about the role of ideology in gatekeeping key policy spaces such as Congressional and Presidential Commissions in the United States. What gets you in, then, is your affiliation; what you do with it is another matter.

Rafael traces the development of Bolivian politics and pay particular attention to the shift from class-based politics to identity-politics. Think tanks are not excluded from this and their roles have changed accordingly.

He concludes that:

Think tanks in Bolivia have thus had influence on politics and policy-making since 1985, but only due to their connections with political parties, social movements and the executive. Therefore thinks tanks, though often subordinate to political interests, can be classified as principal actors in the Bolivian political process.

The paper is written in English and in an ODI Working Paper style and so, I am sure Rafael won’t mind me saying this, quite a lot of the personal learning process is lost in translation. We are currently working on a new version in Spanish for a book on the political economy of research uptake in Latin America funded by the Evidence based Policy in Development Network. Read this, but if you can read Spanish, look out for it when it comes out later in the year.

An agenda for 2011: onthinktanks

Up until now I’ve been posting rather randomly, following what I think may be interesting ideas (at least for me) and links (at least according to those I am following on twitter -follow me @onthinktanks and share my posts with your own networks– and my usual web searches).

From now on I hope to be a bit more systematic in my blogging -partly to give this blog some sense but also to save me the anxiety that ‘no new posts’ tend to create on bloggers. The logic I will follow will be influenced by the following:

  1. I am going to spend the next 12 months or so writing two books: The first one is an extended manual for the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA) for planning, monitoring and evaluating policy influencing interventions.
  2. The second book is focused on the most significant decisions (short and long-term) that think tanks have to make: choosing between policies to attempt to influence, type of research, themes, background of staff to recruit, communication approaches to invest in, programmes to create and close, organisations to partner with, funders to seek funds from, etc.
  3. I am also currently co-editing a book on the political economy on research uptake in Latin America with Norma Correa (following the think tanks and political parties book that I edited in 2009) that will look at the role of research in policy processes, the way it is used by the media, its influence in conflict resolution, and a review of funding mechanisms to promote economic and social policy research in the region. We hope to launch it around July 2011. This is happening alongside another study on the political economy of research uptake in Africa that Cecilia Oppenheim (coordinator of the Evidence based Policy in Development Network) is managing and that Emma Broadbent is carrying out.
  4. Also during the next year I will be working with one or two think tanks supporting them as they undertake important strategic reforms.
  5. Finally, I will be travelling for my work: first I am going to be spending quite a bit of time in West Africa (maybe until November) and then in Latin America (from then onwards). I will, therefore, focus my blogging attention on my immediate environment and attempt to describe think tanks in those regions -or at least find and disseminate useful resources for them.

For this blog then:

  • Over the next couple of months, I will focus my attention on undertaking a literature review on policy influence and think tanks – so you should expect lots of summaries or short comments about books and papers (and links to them). This is important: if you think there is something I should read, please send it over.
  • After that I will be looking for think tanks to study in greater details and therefore I will post some short profiles -I may even start updating (or creating) their wikipedia pages (as I did for Grupo FARO and CIUP). This is also important: If you want me to study your think tank and in the process work with you on some of these issues and challenges, I’d love to hear from you.
  • With the review and the cases identified, I’ll focus my attention on the ROMA book and therefore I’ll update you on issues mostly related to policy influence planning, monitoring and evaluation -this will include posts and resources related to communications and engagement, networking, the organisation of events, online communications, etc.
  • During the second half of the year (August onwards) I’ll probably be quieter for a few months as I get on with interviews. But I hope that by then this blog will have an audience keen to participate and comment.
  • Also during the second half of the year I hope to disseminate some of the outputs from the Latin America and Africa political economy studies.

I cannot stress enough that I would like this blog to be useful for think tanks and their supporters. I believe that think tanks are invaluable for any society with aspirations to better itself -whether they are ideologically independent or not, the proliferation of think tanks can be seen as a proxy for the value that political and economic actors award to knowledge. Their existence alone suggests that a large enough part of a society (and certainly its media) is smart enough not to be bamboozled by easy promises and shallow propaganda (although a degree of this is never going to go away). The fact that politicians and their financial backers in the UK and the US believe that setting up a think tank is a good way to gain power is evidence of the crucial value that ideas play in these countries’ politics. The investment in research and development that has preceded and accompanied China’s and India’s rise to the top of the world economies is evidence of the importance of ideas well beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. Peru, my own country, looks at Chile with envy when it comes to its funding of research and development and think tanks -but little is done to imitate them. It is not a coincidence that Chile is a more mature democracy (with Pinochet and all) but it is certainly not a matter of think tanks creating democracy. The relationship is far more complex.

Ideas need space, but space is opened by ideas. And think tanks are spaces where ideas can be nurtured and from which they can be launched and promoted.

My work is also driven by my own experiences. Up until the 31st December 2010 I worked well within the ‘international development sector’. Development policy, I believe, is what people working for donors (either in donor agencies or contracted or funded by them) and primarily in the developed world call the policies of developing countries. In Peru, when I worked at the Universidad del Pacifico Research Centre (CIUP) we did not talk about development policies: we talked about health policies, social protection policies, economic policies, investment policies, trade policies, etc. We wanted to engage to the researchers and policymakers dealing with those same issues in more developed countries -but not necessarily with international development researchers and policymakers.

In the last six years I have found a world in which some researchers in developing countries -particularly where Aid is abundant- talk about international development to refer to their own work. International development think tanks in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia? I am sorry, but it does not make any sense.

But more worryingly is that I am increasingly encountering researchers from these institutions keen to join the ranks of recent graduates of ‘development studies’ postgraduate degrees -which are interesting but rather generalist courses about developing countries rather than about any policy area in particular -or any country in particular. Again, I feel it does not make sense: would the Bank of England hire someone who studied ‘British Studies’ instead of an economist? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, driven by a global mandate, donors, think tanks, NGOs and consultancies (North, South, West and East) have become expert generalists.

And so the main reason why I decided to focus my attention on think tanks is that I think that much of this nonsense (i.e. ‘it does not make sense’) is based on the absence in many countries of a policy research community that is independent of the international development community. This is true for developing as well as for developed countries -after all, most international development think tanks in developed countries (or research programmes, research and advocacy networks and organisations, NGOs, consultancies) are largely funded through contracts from the main bilateral and multilateral agencies that they claim (or attempt) to influence. Unlike domestic policy issues, international development does not generate the same passions motivate the rich and powerful to fund policy research (with some exceptions, of course), and so they have few options.

The same is happening in many developing countries where the only funding available comes from donors or northern organisations (think tanks, universities, consultancies, and NGOs) who act as financial intermediaries. In some middle-income countries private sector consultancies are making up for the loss of funds from donors’ refocus on the least development regions of the world.  I wouldn’t say that independence is necessarily being lost because in many cases this has always been the case; but certainly independence is unlikely to develop in these circumstances.

The international development sector, almost self contained and with its tentacles are far reaching, may be leaving little space for different ideas to emerge.

Little objection is heard for instance when policy objectives for research programmes designed in London or Brussels remain unchanged across countries and regions: the same policy objectives for Ghana, Malawi and Ethiopia? For Ecuador, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka?

And this focus on specific policies (and in some cases impact on specific service delivery areas) taking no notice of the absence of broader narratives or debates is akin to running before learning to crawl. Experience from Chile, for example, shows that the highly successful support provided for decades by foreign foundations focused on the review of old and the development of new national political, economic and social narratives. Think tanks in Chile can now make specific policy recommendations because they have already gone through the basic foundational research and debate on the big ideas that guide them.

The same was true for Thatcherism, New Labour and David Cameron’s Big Society: first big ideas then specific policies.

In Africa, however, big ideas, based on the type of research funding being pumped out of London or Brussels, are seen as a waste of time and the race is on for policy impact.

However, pushing back is very difficult when both money and ideas are imported. I therefore believe that unless funding for think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia comes from within their public and private sectors (as is the case in a few countries) this dependence will continue -and the hegemony of generalisms will prevail.

I truly hope that my work on the books and this blog will contribute, even if only by encouraging a discussion, to the development of national think tank communities: their own ideological divisions, preferred funders, domestically competitive expert markets (ah, this is another issue -expert markets are distorted), think tank awards and policy priorities.

I do not expect to have all the answers but I hope to uncover a bit of the richness of this community.

Another year, another ranking of think tanks (and surprise surprise, Brookings is still the best)

I’ll accept that James McGann’s effort to identify and rank all the think tanks in the world has some positive outcomes. First of all, it has people talking about think tanks -and some think tanks are even becoming aware that there is a debate out there about themselves. Second… no, that is it. [Also have a look at Goran Buldioski’s blog on the same subject]

I am still of the opinion that going beyond the counting and study of individual think tanks (and their immediate systems) is useless and misleading. Here are five reasons why I do not support this ranking, and then a longer semi-rant at the document.

  1. Think tanks cannot be de-linked from their political, social and economic environment; since think tanks define themselves in relation to the other players in the system. Brookings cannot be described without references to US bipartisanship -when we say independent research in the US we mean independent of either party (as well as of other interests). But independent means something entirely different in China, India, Brazil, or Argentina. Global and regional rankings are therefore unhelpful when the focus of think tanks is local (not local as in of this town or neighbourhood but of their direct interactions).
  2. The list is too diverse to be relevant. The definition of ‘think tanks’ has improved since I last commented on it to include politics. But he has now included organisations some that cannot be possibly compared with the rest. Let’s put it this way: if I define a mobile phone as a device that allows me to make phone calls while on the move I could be tempted to include laptops (after all I can make Skype calls ‘on the move’) but I wouldn’t because it would be confusing and unhelpful. A mobile is one thing and a laptop is another. Maybe they will do things that the other can also do but that does not make them the same thing. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and the various foundations (funders rather than researchers) included …. how useful is it to compare them with IPAR in Rwanda or GRADE in Peru?
  3. It is still based on perception rather than thoughtful analysis. Thoughtful analysis would have required the development of a database with answers to all the questions or criteria presented in page 56. These are good questions, but the nominators were not asked to provide answers to these, only to use them to think about their nominations. This means that it is all about presentation rather than content: still a popularity contest among people who clearly cannot know about every context and must therefore rely on what is accessible to them (this is obvious when one realises that most of the top non-US think tanks are either focusing on (or working under the banner of) international development, security and foreign affairs). The kind of analysis that I am attempting and that Goran Buldioski, for instance, is undertaking in Eastern Europe is absent.
  4. A ranking must have a clear definition of what the top spot implies: top 25 by revenue, by number of staff, by number of publications, by happiness of their staff, etc. It is the same as with sport: Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter. The Ballon d’Or on the other hand is a perception based award given to the best football player according to the votes of coaches and captains of international teams, as well as journalists from around the world. So you either define why one wins or you define who votes; but you cannot keep both unclear or hidden.
  5. It is dangerous. It creates incentives towards investing in profile raising and visibility rather than focusing on research and research capacity. The director of a think tank that is not on the list emailed me, worried about their absence, what should we do? Given that they are one of the most influential think tanks in their country, undertake research of the highest quality and are running groundbreaking and innovative initiatives (copied all over the world) my answer is: nothing. And those who make it to the list because they are popular rather than good are incentivised against doing anything about it because they may believe that the list confers them credibility.

My recommendation (if some sort of ranking is what we want) then continues to be the promotion of national think tank awards like the one promoted by Prospect Magazine. It is a shame, really, because this project has the potential to collect fantastic data on think tanks unfortunately because of the focus on the ranking a huge opportunity is being lost.

On the report itself, here are some preliminary comments after a single read (I promise to give it another go):

The first thing I notice is that top to the list are Brookings and Chatham House. I often go to their websites and find out a bit more about them and see that, yes, they have fantastic research and wide range of products and are clearly at the top of their game. And when I can I go to Chatham House events. So far so good, I guess. But then, second and third are Amnesty International and Transparency International. I know these organisations well. They are quite active in my country (Peru) but they are international campaigning NGOs, not think tanks. Transparency International participates in electoral processes as an observer. Is this the role of a think tank? Amnesty international campaigns for human rights and against their violations. I don’t think that researchers lobbying for more funds and freedom for think tanks in many developing countries would like their governments to think that this would mean more space for TI and AI to operate there too. Apples and Oranges?

Then I remember that the winner of Prospect Magazine’s 2010 Think Tanks Award was the Institute for Government; I check the top non-US think tanks but find that there are other UK think tanks in the list and the Institute for Government is nowhere to be found. In fact, it is not mentioned in the whole document. That is odd but, OK, not all rankings have to agree. What about Policy Exchange? Policy Exchange was set up by the supporters and members of the Conservative Party and was instrumental in the development of the ideas that shaped the arguments that won the 2010 election and that are guiding the new government’s policy agenda. There is a fantastic indirect account of this in Peter Snowdon’s book: Back from the Brink. No, the Policy Exchange is not listed either.

To make sure I am not missing anything I jump to the table for Europe (page 31) but no luck. They are not there. But the Overseas Development Institute is.

Now, as much as I like ODI, I am sure that it is not more influential than Policy Exchange. So, wait a minute, maybe this ranking is not about influence but about worth..?… about value? reputation? is it about finding the ones more capable of speaking truth to power? But why then have an index every year? What can change year on year to get a new one into the ranking? An annual index suggest that think tanks quality can change in a short period of time and therefore it is possible for an unknown organisation to make it to the top is the happen to do all the right things. Is it possible in this ranking? CGD did it more or less and on the basis of a good combination of research and communications. But is it possible for think tanks in small countries focusing on local issues? And is it really a worthy end?

The more I see Chatham House and other security and international relations think tanks the more it feels as if the theme of this year’s ranking is foreign policy or international development -maybe that is what this year was about. Or maybe this is what the annual ranking should be about: focus on a single theme so that more and better analysis can be done for each think tank.

Nevermind, let’s get back to it. On to Latin America, which I know a bit. The list includes the Centro de Estudios Publicos (CEP) from Chile, the Centro de Implementacion de Politicas Publicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC) in Argentina, the Instituto Libertad y Democracia (ILD) in Peru (which by the way is on both 15 and 24), and CEPAL (the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC in English). This is interesting. CEPAL is the only truly regional policy research centre in the list -but it is a UN body. CEP and CIPPEC are clearly focused on their own countries -and they are certainly influential there but not in my country, Peru. And ILD was influential (granted it has been one of the most influential organisations int he world led by their director Hernando de Soto) but it almost has no public presence in Peru and cannot be really compared with other Peruvian and Latin American think tanks if one quickly browses through their work and publications. ILD is a fantastic analysis based consultancy working across the developing world on the basis of some research done in the 1980s. If they make it to the top of the list it is far more interesting to find out why this is the case rather than their place in the ranking: is it because this is what policymakers value, or were the respondents from Africa or Asia where they do most of their work?

In any case, policy in Peru is influenced by (among the think tanks) CIUP, GRADE (which is mentioned), IEP, and others that are not on the list. This is a perfect example of visibility: is it sometimes my impression that GRADE is quite successful in reaching audiences in DC and London and is therefore well known globally; while IEP and CIUP might be more focused on domestic policy debates and hence less well known beyond the country or region -or certain research communities. This probably reflects their origins, mandate and business models. So even within a country, comparison is difficult. Who is to say though whether one is better than the other based on their choice of audiences? [This section has been edited; see comments below.]

Back to Latin America (and for that matter, Europe). In Latin America there isn’t a regional government so what is the point of a regional ranking. So what is the top think tank is Brazilian? Is it informing the Chilean government? Is it valuable for Colombia? Maybe in Europe ‘European think tanks’ make more sense but then is this why domestically focused think tanks are not mentioned? Clearly, international reviewers would not know who are the movers and shakers of Peruvian, British, or Spanish policies. (Again, a point in favour of national awards.)

So maybe the regional focus has little to do with where the think tanks do their influencing and more with quite simply where they are based. But if this is the case then once again we’d be separating think tanks from their context -and this is not right.

And now on to Africa. This list looks a bit messy, to say the least. The first 7 are from South Africa (no surprises there). But number 8 is a regional research network made up of researchers based in think tanks across Africa -I’d like to call it a think tank but I am not sure how it compares with the others. And then it lists a few organisations which can hardly be called organisations at all and are only popular or known because they are among the only ones in their countries. Others are in the process of getting there; but are not there yet. A tiny bit of analysis would have provided sufficient information to disqualify them as worthy of any ranking; and to identify many others who may be more worthy of a mention.

Anyway, what is the point of saying that organisation xyz is among the top 25 in Africa? How does it compare with the Latin American ones, for instance?

What happened with the debate on think tanks in South Asia? I’ve been avidly following a great debate on Indian newspapers on think tanks that would suggest a fantastic opportunity for a study such as this one. And how useful is it to compare them with think tanks in East and Southeast Asia? In fact, how useful is it to compare think tanks in China or Vietnam with those in Japan, Indonesia and South Korea? Our overview study on think tanks and politics in the region showed foundational differences between them that merit more rather than less national focus.

The lack of analysis is telling of the limits of this type of research. A country or region focused study (rather than ranking) would have been much richer and useful.

The thematic rankings are also quite interesting. The fact still remains that one cannot separate theme from politics -and politics are always local.

I would have loved an explanation for Chatham House coming ahead of IDS in the ranking on International Development. Chatham House if by far a better think tank than ODI and IDS on foreign policy (and let’s face it they are a fantastic think tank in general and its contribution to international development debate is invaluable) but given that international development policy is still largely dominated by DFID and that DFID’s research programme is dominated by IDS and ODI (and not Chatham House) and that IDS alumni roam the corridors of DFID I cannot understand the ranking. More explanation is needed, please.

Also, why is Fundacao Getulio Vargas included in this table? They are not focused on International Development policy, their focus is on just policies; the international development prefix is added by ‘northern’ organisations to describe policies for or of developing countries. FGT deal with economic, business and legal research for the development of Brazil. How is this different from the research done by Brookings or IPPR for the development of the US and the UK respectively? (patronising?)

Also FGV is included at the foundation level not at the level of its centres of programmes, however, the Pew Research Center rather than the Pew Charitable Trusts is included. Why? I would suggest that it has to do with the narrow and shallow focus on a global index instead of a desire to understand the richness of the histories of these organisations.

Then it gets confusing -think tanks are in more than one category but in totally different levels and others which one would expect to find are gone. Yes, this is all possible, as most think tanks would be good in one thing and not in all; but Chatham House, for example, is the top UK think tank in most list but behind the International Institute for Strategic Studies when it comes to their core area of expertise: foreign policy and security. This makes no sense.

The potentially most useful list (domestic economic policy) ends up being a US focused one. This further illustrates the limitations of a global ranking and its bias towards international development and foreign affairs think tanks that are more easily identifiable in the blogosphere or more popular communication channels than domestically focused ones.

Then the special categories: most innovative policy idea -great category but what have they been nominated for? what was the idea that got Brookings to the top? Again, another missed opportunity to provide intelligent insights into the rich and complex reality of think tanks. The same goes for the outstanding policy research programme category. Which programme got ODI the 15th place? ODI has quite a lot of programmes -and also projects that we call programmes because they are larger than the usual small projects we run. So which one was it? The Africa Power and Politics Programme? The Research and Policy in Development Programme? The Humanitarian Policy Group’s Integrated Programme? The Chronic Poverty Research Centre? It is important to know because some of these are delivered with other organisations so ODI could not take all the credit.

I got bored a bit and jumped over some tables until I got to the best government affiliated think tank -WBI? Nice to know that the WB is considered a government. If the WB is a ‘government’ would the UN not be one too? (UNU-WIDER and CEPAL are in the other tables.) What about think tanks entirely (or almost entirely) funded by their governments or the international cooperation?

And then, Party Affiliated think tanks -which is an important addition to any work on think tanks. This merits an entirely different post. What does affiliated mean? Does this include Conservative think tanks in the United States like Heritage or the Conservative Party’s Central Research Department? And wouldn’t CASS and VASS (the Vietnamese equivalent of CASS) be part of this category? After all, they are affiliated to the Communist Party and Chinese and Vietnamese line ministries have their own think tanks.

I don’t want this to be a totally anti-Go-to-Think-Tank-of-the-Year rant. As I said before, the ranking has created an opportunity for debate and discussion on think tanks and this is good. But this ought to lead to a proper discussion about think tanks, the roles they play and how they may be able to contribute to their contexts (local and/or global).

The list of questions and criteria in page 56 is the best part of the document and an important contribution to the think tanks debate. It provides a guideline of sorts to study think tanks in greater detail and to promote a more intelligent debate. Focusing on the list and the ranking, I think, robs us of James McGann’s and his team’s undeniable capacity to do this and leave us with a bitchy Oscar nominations season for researchers.

once again, think tank debate from India

In response to the rich debate that the launch of the Think Tank Initiative generated in India (partially, at least), Suman Bery, director-general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, and member of India’s Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council has published an article on the need of diversifying think tanks’ support.

The article, in my view, shows two things: first, that there is a debate on the value of policy research in India that I believe explains the country’s rapid economic, scientific and social development; and, second, that research excellence can become a great commodity for a country -and would, in fact, constitute a service export.

Suman Bery also provides insights into the challenges that the NCAER’s business model faces.

[The NCAER was originally] expected to support itself through contract research for at least two reasons: first, because there was no other funding model available and, second, to ensure that its work programme addressed practical problems rather than reflecting the intellectual interests of its staff.

However, this is no longer possible as, according to Mr.Bery:

Output is delayed or suppressed by mid-level bureaucrats, payments are sometimes withheld even for completed work, and different officials or departments hold widely differing attitudes to public disclosure or publication of the contracted work. This is obviously not an environment conducive to professional development.

It is therefore the role of local corporations and foundations to pick up the bill and invest in India’s future. This is a lessons that should be learned across the developing world -and it should not be a difficult one to learn as there are examples of this in every region: Chile in Latin America, South Africa, India in South Asia, and China and Vietnam in East and Southeast Asia have all invested heavily in research.

In Chile in particular, it is interesting to see how the initial investment by foreign foundations (including the Ford Foundation -also the original funder of the NCAER) led to the development of a domestic policy research market; very much like the one that Mr. Bery and Sanjaya Baru are asking for.


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