Extra, extra, think tanks are funded by foreign governments! This may have come as a shock to the readers of the New York Times but its an every day affair for think tanks in the developing world. This blog provides an overview of some of the mechanisms through which foreign funders fund think tanks in developing countries. Some pose significant challenges to their credibility and independence. Looking forward, a balance of foreign versus domestic funding will have to change.
Posts tagged ‘donors’
Funding think tanks requires careful consideration of a number of variable: who is funding, who receives the funding, what is it for, and how is it delivered. Think tanks should not be funded as if they were just another organisation; nor should they all be funded the same way across the board. In this post I try to outline some of the questions (and analysis) that funders may want to consider before funding think tanks.
Hans Gutbrod analyses how 20 leading US think tanks have developed over 2012. Seven of them are doing very well, while four of them are not exactly comfortable, at least not in financial terms. Analysis and detailed spreadsheet available.
In this post on supporting think tanks, Hans Gutbrod argues that supporting think tanks may mean encouraging new functions. Think tanks can make a contribution by generating the data that researchers and policymakers so desperately need.
A former US Senator's investment in a new think tank shows that philanthropy is a common activity in rich nations - not so in developing countries. Domestic philanthropy must be promoted, and local donors must be persuaded to invest in local think tanks.
This article on how Western think-tanks got it wrong on the Arab Spring got me thinking about recent discussions about think tanks’ impact. A great deal of emphasis is placed on whether think tanks should measure their influence -and even on the individual tools that think tanks sometimes use to communicate their work. In the last few weeks I have been asked to review a couple of papers on monitoring and evaluating think tanks policy influence and a couple more M&E framework proposals. This focus on policy influence often:
- Forgets about all the other positive (and, at least, neutral) contributions think tanks can make to society (educate, provide oversight, improve political debate, break the consensus, strengthen parties, help fund research, etc.);
- Overestimates the influence think tanks have; and
- Tends to assume that think tanks are always right about what they say.
The fact is that think tanks play very small roles even in the most think tank savvy societies and quite often they do not know what they are talking about. This is a quote referring to Anthony Seldon that Emma Broadbent wrote for a study on think tanks in the UK:
Rohrer (2008) quotes Prof Anthony Seldon, editor of Ideas and Think Tanks in Contemporary Britain and biographer of Tony Blair, who believes their influence is overstated. Of the three major prime ministerial periods of post-war Britain, the Attlee, Thatcher and Blair eras, he believes only Atlee was significantly influenced by think tanks. For Blair, he says, “What is striking, as Blair’s biographer, is how little impact they [think tanks] made. You see hardly any influence on policy at all. It is very hard to see how ideas get into the system.” Seldon argues that “As the numbers of think tanks have accelerated their influence has declined. Influence comes from people who break off them and come into government.”
Last year, Prospect Magazine’s Annual Think Tank Awards had no real winner for the foreign policy category. According to the judges the winner would have had to predict the European financial crisis and the Arab Spring. None did. So not only are think tanks not as influential as sometimes we’d like to think they are, but they can also get it wrong; even where the resources and opportunities are as readily accessible as they are in the UK.
This is important for two reasons:
- According to the Prospect judges and to The National’s article think tanks play an important role not only in influencing policy directly (by telling governments what to do) but also by informing decision makers of things they may not be aware of. Think tanks, according to both political publications, fulfil a key function often overlooked by those too focused on tangible indicators of impact: enlightenment, information, inspiration… When attempting to assess think tanks contributions therefore we must pay attention to this more indirect yet crucial aspect of their work.
- Often, even the best think tanks, with all their resources and top academics -even with local offices and programmes, get it wrong or miss key processes and developments entirely. This means that we should not simply assume that everything a think tank says should influence policy. This would be quite dangerous. What we should be looking for is evidence that their recommendations have informed the public debate and the decisions made by those with the legitimate power to make them.
We should genuinely worry when donors put pressure on their grantees/sub-contractors to influence policy (and show them evidence of their influence). What they should be looking for is more informed policymaking and not just cases of policy influence.
[Editor's note: This is the first post by Hans Gutbrod, Director of the Think Tank Initiative. I'd like to welcome him to onthinktanks.org and look forward to his ideas and reflection on think tanks. Over the next few days and weeks we'll also be sharing some of the videos from the sessions organised at the TTI's exchange mentioned in this blog post.]
Bringing together more than 100 think tank executive and research directors from more than 25 countries, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, in June 2012 probably was one of the largest gatherings of think tanks from the global South held to date. Some of the substance of the event has already been covered, in various ways, by lively Twitter commentary. Short videos from the sessions, highlighting particular topics, will be made available in the coming days and weeks.
So what continues to stand out from this event in hindsight? Here are some personal reflections, not intended as a conclusive summary, but as points of discussion.
For think tanks to make a difference, they have to attract exceptional staff. Thomas Carothers, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has made this point. It is obvious, but not trivial: think tank research needs to be both substantive and hedged, smart and safe, and, on some occasions, cautious and bold. As think tanks trade on their authority, they are particularly vulnerable when making claims. Raymond Struyk highlights this risk in the first page of his classic book on managing think tanks, describing this unsettling scenario:
A report on a high-visibility and urgent problem is sent to the Ministry of Finance with significant flaws in the statistical analysis. These flaws are discovered by an analyst from another organization after the report has been widely distributed. The think tank loses significant credibility with the government and other clients.
Not many people are good at responding thoughtfully and quickly, while getting everything right. Peer review processes can prevent errors, but given the pressure, any first draft has to be solid, and review steps need to be executed with great care.
That means not only do think tank leaders need to be remarkable (and there were a lot of exceptional people at the TTI Exchange), but they also need a remarkable team behind them. The success of a think tank depends on building a deeper team, on recruiting exceptional staff, and getting exceptional people to work together. Core funding is thus critical, as it allows think tanks to attract and retain exceptional staff. Some innovative funding arrangements notwithstanding, core funding remains a key feature for the type of local research that can improve lives, because it makes high-performing think tank teams possible.
Connecting to Conversations
Even with great teams, unnoticed loneliness at the top can be a severe challenge: since the leaders of think tanks rarely engage peer-to-peer on management questions, their loneliness is often profound. With a few exceptions, leaders mostly figure things out by themselves, maybe with a board or their personal circle. This loneliness sets them apart from people in other professions such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, or even managers in the private or public sector, who regularly discuss and enhance professional practice.
Yet the loneliness can go unnoticed, since the leader of any think tank will engage extensively with fellow researchers and policymakers, clients, maybe diplomats, scholars from abroad, journalists, interns and students. After six years at CRRC, my email address book had accumulated more than 4400 contacts. Yet except for two extended conversations that Goran Buldioski from the Think Tank Fund made possible, I not once – not a single time – in those six years, sat down with someone else who was running a research organization to exchange experiences on how we do things. And to me, the remarkable thing was that I didn’t even realize, until the TTI Exchange, that I had not discussed how to run a research organization with anyone other than my colleagues. Bringing think tank leaders together helps to overcome this loneliness, and gives them an opportunity to begin conversations and connect.
Communities of Practice
Following from this, I think it’s fair to say that there is no fully established community of practice – defined by Wenger as a “group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” – for running think tanks, especially not in the South. There are some personal links, and there are well-established practices of research in relevant academic disciplines, but these are different from the practices of generating policy research with the aim of improving people’s lives – perhaps as different as physics is from engineering.
If policy research in the South is seeking to have a greater impact, it’s probably worth cultivating habits of sharing more, deepening knowledge and expertise, and interacting on an ongoing basis. These are the kind of habits that are well established in other professions. Patent lawyers, insurance actuaries, heart surgeons and project managers alike – they all set up a trade publication, ways of exchanging information, and they get together regularly, to discuss how to do things. The formalization is not all happy: there is tomfoolery in most jamborees, but if you only pick up a handful of better practices, tell a few peers what has worked for you, and identify the colleagues you will call for advice when things get sticky in the office, you serve yourself and the profession, as well as the people your profession serves.
In the case of successful policy research in the South, strengthening a nascent community of practice could probably go a long way toward making better policies stick. On our end, at TTI, we are certainly thinking about how to cultivate such a community of practice. We have quite a few ideas on how to do this, but welcome ideas and input from others.
This is also why I’m contributing these reflections here in this blog. Onthinktanks.org serves as an excellent aggregator for many of the issues that are worth debating in the community. To broaden the debate, we will be making videos from the TTI exchange available in the coming weeks, and hope they find a good audience. Check our website or follow us on Twitter.
In addition to what has already been published on this blog, do you have any other thoughts on what we can do to cultivate a community of practice for policy research and think tank management?
Allen McDuffee of the Washington Post´s blog Think Tanked has recently written a piece on how the presidents of several large American think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corp. are stepping down, some after a considerable amount of years in the position. This renewal of leadership, however, is taking place in the face of several new challenges that the new generation will have to deal with.
A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that communications will be the biggest challenge for newcomers, due to “too much noise in public policy today”. This will require new presidents to become more creative about reaching out to their audiences. Brooks became AEI´s president in 2009, after Christopher Demuth stepped down after 20 years. He characterises these challenges as exhilarating and fun. However, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that this approach, combined with less financial resources and more competition due to the appearance of more organisations in the think tank field, is contributing to the large amount of retirements.
McGann also is of the opinion that these think tanks have political considerations in mind when choosing their new leaders. Some have decided to maintain the status quo by choosing new presidents from among their own ranks, as was the case with Rand Corp. and the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Others have behaved differently, like the Centre for American Progress who chose Neera Tanden as its new director, signalling a change by forming part of the new wave of women leaders in positions traditionally filled by men.
In any case, these new leaders have their work cut out for them. Increased competition, donor expectations, the 24 – hour news cycle and the expectation to respond to politics will put a strain on think tanks, particularly when new directors do not have the same relationship with donors as their predecessors did. This means that they will not have the leverage to resist donor requests, and so research will come in danger of being dictated by politics. All of these issues will certainly keep new think tank directors up at night.