Zambia has emerged as a fertile ground for new think tanks. Innovative donors, an enlightened political leadership, and committed individuals offer interesting lessons.
Posts tagged ‘DFID’
Almost half a year ago I wrote some unsolicited recommendations for the future head of the Think Tank Initiative. This week I’ve had the chance to share some of them with the incoming Program Manager: Hans Gutbrod. Over the last few days here in Cape Town he has also expressed his own views on twitter and in conversations with think tank directors and researchers at the event. Today, after a long day at the TTIexchange in South Africa I sat down with him for a quick chat about his motivations and expectations.
Why did you apply for the job?
I am passionate about making research work, but making it work in a way and in places where it’s even more important that research gives citizens and their countries a voice. And this is what the Think Tank Initiative is about. Think tanks, at their best, anchor expertise in a country and allow research to make a difference in the long term. But nothing lasts without the right individuals and institutions (that the TTI is supporting).
What is your think tank experience?
I worked for almost 6 years with a research organisation focused on the delivery of empirical research: a Fact Tank. (Hans was Regional Director at Caucasus Research Resource Center.) In a context where even the basic numbers were contested (unemployment levels, levels of destitution, etc.) there was a need for this approach. A fact tank can be a think tank. This strategy worked well for a highly polarised context and our centre did this work rather well and gave citizens (who were finally being counted) a voice via our research.
Can think tank make a difference in unfriendly contexts?
Even in difficult contexts when the constraints faced by think tanks in different situations are sizeable, the opportunities are there too. Small policy fixes can make huge differences to the majority of citizens. But to be effective under these circumstances, think tanks need to be highly responsive and in a way contribute to create their own opportunities for success. Once this happens, success is cumulative, melting problems away once you get going.
Do you have a definition of a think tank?
Ask me in 3 months. It is important to make sure that we have one that in inclusive whilst meaningful. But if I was to outline some principles: it would have to be interested broadly in the public good, be non-for-profit, and it should apply judgement to generate the appropriate type and level of knowledge that can feed into policy and practice.
What do you mean by appropriate?
That it responds to the context. That it addresses the problem: is it ignorance or disfunctionality? These require different types of knowledge. In doing so they need to behave like entrepreneurs. When people try to generate knowledge that adds value they take certain risks; risks similar to those taken by entrepreneurs. They must also develop and sustain influencing processes; similar to the enterprises taken on by entrepreneurs.
But back to the definition. Think tanks, at least in the idealised version, start with a concern about an issue and research is at the core of their response to it. In other words, research is central to their credibility and identity.
You are right. When deciding what is and what is not a think tank we can ask ourselves what we think of when we think of an organisation. Amnesty International, for instance, may do research but that is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it.
I know you’ve had only a few days to get to know the grantees and the initiative but is there anything that you have found particularly appealing?
Difficult to pick… Maybe that in 10 to 15 years it is possible that the idea of think tanks in the ‘south’ will be seen as normal and central as they are in more developed economies. This is now possible because of the internet. From my own experience I know how central it was for us to succeed in a difficult context. Even in hard circumstances we had access to information about our role models half way across the world. They were only a few seconds away; closer than the bookshelf.
That the discussions we have had today are now available to people on the internet in a radical development.
And what about concerns?
Leadership is critical to success. But the kind of leadership that is necessary in research in one with an element of productive paranoia. Leadership is an authority claim and for this claim to be credible it needs to be rigorous. So leaders in the initiative need to ask themselves again and again what works and what doesn’t and why. They need to surround themselves by an environment of discipline pluralism.
And the conversation, I expect, will continue. It has been (so far; the exchange still has another day to go) a great opportunity to learn more about think tanks and their staff. I will continue to blog about some of the main issues that emerged over the course of the plenaries and workshops (and coffee breaks) over the next few weeks. And I hope, of course, to welcome Hans to onthinktanks.org again.
In a few months, a new Head of the Think Tank Initiative will take on the responsibility of leading a new phase of a programme (see the second annual report) that has the potential of not only changing the fortunes of its grantees but also the way in which international development (and domestic) funders support think tanks all over other world.
In view of this, as well as an upcoming launch of its second annual report, I offer some ideas (unsolicited, but hopefully welcomed) to consider. I hope these are also relevant and useful to other think tank funds and initiatives that are directly and/or indirectly supporting think tanks and policy research centres across the developing world.
Clearly, I do not expect that these recommendations will be implemented right away -and at the same time I do not wish to imply that these are terribly original and that they have not been considered already. But I think it would be good for all of us to keep them in mind and maybe debate them a bit more in the coming months. In all cases, the hoped-for outcome is that the initiative’s work may be taken on by others and its effects (the positive ones) will be greatly strengthened, multiplied, and sustained in the long-run.
Be a thought leader
This is not a new sector but it is certainly not a very popular one. In the world of developing country think tanks there are not many minds and voices out there. This position, I believe, offers an enviable opportunity to contribute to the effort to develop the sector and our own understanding of it. As time goes by, any opportunity found for writing and publishing could certainly add value to our work, think tanks, and their funding. Goran Buldioski‘s blog, for example, is a perfect example what I’d hope to see more of across all think tank and research funders. Another one is Jeffrey Puryear whose account of think tanks in Chile does not cease to provide new insights into the sector.
Leverage domestic funds
Unless national and even local governments, businesses, and philanthropists take on the responsibility of funding research and think tanks in their own countries and communities, initiatives like the TTI will never see the end to their work. Many of the organisations funded by the TTI have been funded by various IDRC programmes in the past. In several cases, their funding helped to set them up many decades ago. None of these think tanks (not even the most established) have been able to ‘graduate’ from foreign funding and I would expect that the same fate awaits the younger ones.
There are serious problems with relying on international funds for research. First, researchers end up paying more attention to what donors are interested in than what their countries need. Second, they are quick to adopt discourses and processes that often lack relevance for contexts. And finally, to list only three, they become dependent on political (and funding) cycles on which they have no influence what so ever.
The TTI provides an opportunity to break this dependence that has not existed before. This time around there is a coalition of influential and interested international donors (IDRC, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) of the Netherlands). There are significant funds available to back their commitment (CAD113 million). The think tanks supported constitute an important community (12 in East Africa, 12 in Latin America, 11 in West Africa, and 16 in South Asia). And the media and governments have paid attention -it is not just think tanks who have noticed what is going on.
I think that the TTI, ideally working with other think tank and research funders, could use these sources of power and influence that it has so successfully developed during its first two/three years of existence, to target not just think tanks but also potential domestic funders. How to do this? I’ve thought of some ideas but I would expect that it would be necessary to think about which ones may be more appropriate for each think tank fund and its partners -and of course this would depend on each country.
- Channel future funds (first some and progressively more) through national research councils or trust funds, set up independently from the government or any other policy actors, and governed by independent national boards to ensure autonomy. TTI funds could serve as a gravitational force for the funds of other international and national research funders who will feel greatly reassured by their presence. Better coordinated, funds would be more effectively allocated.
- This model could be used to nudge national governments into topping up or matching the funding provided by international funders and, slowly, shift the balance in favour of domestic funds. Not so long ago the Canadian government engaged in a discussion with the Peruvian government to do just that -but the Peruvian government did not step-up to the challenge (if only there had been a bit more pressure?).
- Mobilise global and northern philanthropists to convince their peers. Why not invite Jim Balsillie (I have a feeling he would do it) from Research in Motion and who set up CIGI to a series of dinners and seminars with wanna-be philanthropists in developing countries? Or host a show-and-tell event in Canada, Washington, or London to bring them together with other philanthropists. There are fantastic stories from developing countries, too -the Gateway House, for example, is a new Indian think tank funded by Indians. In China the government is investing heavily on think tanks. Why not work with them to convince their wealthy peers in Asia, Africa and Latin America to do the same? Better yet, use the Soros, the Gates, and the Hewletts to help set up new foundations in developing countries. Why not make them TTI funders, too? This would make it a truly global initiative.
The leveraging of funds should also consider how to mobilise other research funders in some countries where the focus should really be elsewhere: on universities and the development of human capital.
Unleash the power of your data
The TTI, like other such funds and initiatives that support think tanks and research centres, has and continues to gather invaluable information about think tanks from all around the world. This data offers unparalleled opportunities for research and learning -something I know is on the initiative’s agenda. Inevitably, some will have to be used with care as much of the information may be private but, where possible, I would encourage the new Head to allocate resources to make it public and easily available.
I expect that soon, think tank scholars, think tanks themselves, students, and the media will be using it and developing our common understanding on these organisations. Of course, just as the data is public so should any products that are based on it. Some ideas:
- A competition could be established to encourage new studies; maybe the opportunity to present them at annual meetings or other international conferences.
- A collaboration with an academic journal could be set up to publish a special issue of studies based on the data.
- Incentivise TTI grantees’ researchers to undertake research on think tanks (using their own data as well as that of their peers) -see ‘amplify the voices of thinking directors’, below.
Fund new think tanks and start-ups (take risks on new big ideas)
Up until now, the TTI has funded organisations with a history (not always too long) and, hopefully, an established reputation. I think that, while necessary, this could have the potential undesired effect of limiting intellectual debate in some of the grantee countries. If all follow the same safe approach to funding, by funding the strongest organisations the donors could be closing the space of new ideas coming out of other centres. After all, good ideas are not the property of large and old think tanks; anyone can have them.
There is also the issue that there being so few think tanks in some countries, the ones that exist have developed a sort of monopoly on the production of research. And control the prices and quality of knowledge.
TTI could fund start-ups around new big (which is not the same as expensive) ideas that need that little extra help to develop -in a context of more domestic funding this could lead to new sustainable think tanks and programmes. Start-ups do not need to be expensive -this is common the response I get to this suggestion, before it is dismissed. A couple of friends and I have been working to set up a forestry think tank in Peru and working hard to keep its set-up costs very low. How? First, we have decided to focus the work of the think tank on analysis and synthesis before moving on to more long-term research -this means starting with a small team and a small research budget. Second, we propose to set it up first as a programme within an existing research centre so that we can avoid the usual costs involved with setting up a new organisation (e.g. renting office space, hiring staff, sorting out legal issues, etc.). To make sure that the think tank is autonomous from the start we are putting together an independent board and will call it ‘centre’ rather than programme or project (sounds silly, but I think this matters). Third, we have developed a draft plan that explicitly calls for a reduction on any foreign funding and increase in funding from local sources (in the form of grants) -in fact, right from the beginning the initiative has the support of the private sector.
If the think tank proves to be successful (and makes a contribution to the sector) then we would seek funds (local) to set it up as an independent body. But only if. Like any start-up there is always an element of risk.
Some of the recommendations suggested under ‘leveraging domestic funds’ apply to this idea but a focus needs to be given to funding innovations or existing initiatives such as JCTR’s the Basic Needs Basket or CIPPEC’s Agenda Presidencial. This is as close to a win-win situation as one can get: the funds would be rewarding organisations that have already invested their own money and effort. Another way is to include newer and smaller organisations in the next round of grants ; which to some degree has happened already.
Don’t be afraid to drop a few think tanks along the way
There is no reason why a think tank must exist if it does not fulfil its functions -and funders should not fund if they are not happy with what’s produced. If the think tanks (and their funders) set out realistic objectives there is no reason why the TTI grantees should not be able to meet them. All too often, I believe, donors (and other northern ‘intermediaries’) are afraid to walk away from a southern organisation. There is a mistaken sense of responsibility for them.
In the end, this simply closes the space for new initiatives, rewards poor practice, and creates dependence.
And taking risks (see the previous point) involves accepting some losses: but nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.
Not entirely, of course, but I would encourage the new Head of the TTI to look for inspiration and allies among northern and southern non-aid think tanks. These are the organisations that deal, on a daily basis, with domestic issues (economics, trade, agriculture, health, education, etc.) in developed countries and on non-aid issues (security, foreign policy, right and left-wing politics, etc.) in developing countries.
I think that the TTI grantees have more to learn from them than from northern international development think tanks, NGOs and development consultancies. International development organisations tend to work in the world of ‘marginal’ politics (aid, after all, represents a negligible portion of donor country national budgets); on the other hand, domestic ones, like developing country think tanks, deal with ‘mainstream’ politics.
IPAR Rwanda, one of the TTI grantees, has a very interesting collaboration with IPPR, in the UK, going on. I would encourage more of these links -but also between think tanks in different ‘southern’ regions, such as the Think Tank Fund initiative to link Eastern European think tanks with their peers in Latin America and South East Asia.
Encourage and amplify the voices of your thinking Directors and thinktankers
This is not to dismiss the important work undertaken by all others, but many think tank directors (for instance people like Orazio Belettinni and Simon Maxwell, both of whom have contributed to this blog) have taken up the challenge of managing think tanks and chosen a critical thinking route, too. Rather than ‘getting on with it’ they have decided to turn their grants and jobs into an opportunity to think about their organisations and their roles. Their experience, research, and the lessons they are sharing with other directly relevant to other think tanks. The same is true for other staff (researchers or communicators) in think tanks.
The TTI could encourage more of this, possibly by:
- Providing small bits of additional funding for studies on think tanks by think tanks.
- Setting-up a simple blog for the initiative or an online space; or encouraging them to write for other spaces (like this one?)
- Pairing-up their most promising candidates (and I stress: promising ones -those who make the effort) with peers in more developed (or more successful -if this is possible to determine) think tanks.
Expand the community
As the think tanks settled into the initiative and their new grants, the TTI could, slowly (and I stress, slowly -and carefully), invite non-TTI grantees to its meetings and events (regional and global).
- Maybe, they could be included in some of the evaluations (could they be considered as counterfactual?) and research commissioned by the TTI.
- They could be invited to regional learning events or trainings such as the recent Latin American think tanks meeting held in Lima.
- Future learning events could be organised in coordination with other initiatives, thus maximising opportunities for networking and sharing.
There are other more micro-level ideas that could be considered relating to capacity development, communications, and links to non-TTI think tanks. But those presented here, I hope, will provide some inspiration for a successful and meaningful intervention.
And, of course, I hope these ideas and recommendations are equally useful and relevant for other initiatives.
More information on the Head of the Think Tank Initiative post and how to apply.
Best of luck.
‘Capoeira mata um’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘capoeira foi morto por um’ – at least on one sunny day last summer.
Now if you’re like 99.9% of readers of this blog, you’re probably wondering a) why Enrique let me do a guest blog, and b) what in the world Brazilian Portuguese has to do with austerity communications. Let me explain.
The first line literally means ‘capoeira kills one’, but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about a time where ‘capoeira was killed by one’, how that has changed the development communications landscape, and what lessons development policy entrepreneurs can draw from the famed Brazilian martial art/dance.
When the Conservative-led coalition came into government in the UK last May, one of the first targets in their crosshairs was ‘profligate’ Labour spending, which they argued had left the country in dire economic straits. ‘Communications’, synonymous with spending, quickly became a dirty word across Whitehall. And, although they promised to protect – and even increase – aid spending, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, made value for money of British aid a clear priority. Among other things, that meant cuts to a cherished Labour objective: making the argument for aid to the British public.
Indeed, who could argue with cutting aid funds to a ‘Brazilian dance troupe’ in Hackney (a neighbourhood in East London)? In one of his first ministerial speeches, Mitchell made clear that these sorts of activities would no longer be tolerated and that the aid argument would be won not on explaining it to audiences at home but by improving lives abroad.
By mid-2010 the UK, not just the newly rebranded UKaid, entered an age of ‘austerity communications’. Government websites were among the first to be scrutinised. As it turned out, the UK Trade and Investment website, in what is frankly a crude measure, cost the government nearly £12/visitor, and that’s discounting staff and operating costs. Hardly value for money, by any definition.
Such costs called for a rationalisation of government websites, an edict that has trickled down through the ranks of DFID. In the most recent advice given to its large portfolio of research consortia, it was suggested that no programme should have a standalone website. Recommendations have also emerged that no money should be going to promoting large programmes as brands independent from their host organisations, and that hosting events that cost over £20,000 require cabinet-level approval.
While the value for money of these arbitrary rules is dubious at best, the push for austerity communications should be welcomed by development researchers, research communicators, knowledge intermediaries and policy entrepreneurs alike. Just as it is an incorrect assumption that less polished looking communication activities are cheaper (just ask the 2012 Olympic committee), it is equally untrue that communication has to be expensive. An unhealthy economy has emerged in the research communication field: from expensive and self-indulgent websites to exorbitant per diems for participation in events (which may soon be considered bribery in certain circumstance under new UK legislation) to paying for media placement.
My friend and former colleague, Nick Scott from ODI has spoken widely about free and low cost online tools that can help establish and bolster an online presence, so I will instead broaden the discussion in the rest of this post to how communications has the opportunity to be more effective in these tight times.
Ironically, capoiera’s existence today is a shining example of massive impact with limited resources. Capoeira emerged from slaves of African origin working the sugarcane plantations of Brazil in the 1600s. As a martial art, slaves used it for self-protection, to escape and to defend Quilombos (informal settlements of escaped slaves and others living outside the law). As capoeira was a clear threat to the Portuguese slave owners, it was outlawed, forcing capoeiristas to disguising the practice as a form of traditional dance. And perhaps at a most basic level, this clandestine approach of obfuscating traditional approaches to research communications will be necessary, but only when they are the most appropriate techniques to reach an objective.
Ultimately I hope that these new rules force us to change rather than conceal. And here, capoiera offers more lessons to inform an innovative approach to research communications.
There are several styles of capoiera, the two most popular being capoira regional (pronounced ‘hey-shu-nal) and capoiral angola. Capoeira regional is the newer, flashier side of capoeira, with rodas usually going at a quicker pace and with more jumps, spins and kicks. The more traditional angola style is comparatively slow place and low to the ground, with combatants usually keeping at least one hand touching the ground at all times. Both styles are popular, but capoeira angola is considered the more difficult. It is a reflective and strategic style and requires greater control – consider it the chess of the martial arts world. And perhaps these two styles represent the difference between research communications and marketing as it was promoted under the Labour government (capoiera regional) and the era of austerity communications (capoiera angola).
There are a few principles operating in capoeira angola: 1) conserve energy and maintain endurance; 2) use the slow pace to develop an understanding of the opponent and use that understanding to defeat her/him; 3) exploit opportunities and make every attack count. Development communications would do well to abide by these principles.
1) Conserve energy and maintain endurance: As Enrique has noted elsewhere, think tanks and research organisations that chase visibility at the cost of substantive research and influence do so at their own peril. The fact is that we are operating with finite resources and there is an opportunity cost associated with pursing any given engagement activity. To that end, we must recognise that substantive influence does not happen overnight. We need to be prepared to invest in long term strategies that focus on building relationships and trust – neither of which is founded on glossy brochures.
2) Understand the opponent: At its least, austerity communications should give us time to pause and reflect on how policy influence and research uptake actually occur in our individual contexts. Maybe getting an article into a journal with the highest impact factor isn’t going to change practice on the ground. Maybe the long research publication isn’t the best choice in Cambodia, where most business and politics is transacted verbally. Maybe the flashy website that woos donors isn’t the right option to reach researchers in the D.R. Congo where internet penetration is notoriously low.
Additionally, a good understanding of our audience allows us to extend a ‘being there’ strategy from the web to other forms of communication. Beyond thinking of where in the web world your audiences are spending their time, also think through: What publications are your target audiences already reading? What media do they already engage with? What events are they already attending? Spending effort getting into these spaces may be much more valuable than simply creating more of your own spaces and spending resources to market them. Enrique’s recent post on ‘confirmation bias’ should be a good reminder of this – people are predisposed to agree with evidence from a source they already trust.
3) Make every attack count: Value for money doesn’t necessarily mean spending less money, it means spending it wisely. Instead of a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to communication (which can be particularly valuable when working in complex environments as long as there are in-built learning mechanisms), under austerity communications we will likely need to be more selective in our communications activities. So when an opportunity does arise, and we do think that it is the right intervention for the right objective, go ‘all in’ and put significant resources behind it.
In a review of DFID’s recommendation to spend 10% of funds on communication activities for certain types of programmes that Enrique and I both participated in a few years ago, we found that some programmes were taking the advice literally and cascading the 10% funding throughout all of its interventions – but some research is more communicable than other research. Austerity communications will require a greater investment in horizon scanning (and tools that facilitate this), and then taking every advantage of opportunities as and when they do arise.
*[This is the first of I hope many more contributions from practitioners and experts in the field of think tank management, communications, funding, etc. If you would like to recommend someone please contact Enrique Mendizabal on firstname.lastname@example.org]
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Also during the next year I will be working with one or two think tanks supporting them as they undertake important strategic reforms.
- 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.