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Newsletter N°7

News, events and job announcements from think tanks and donors around the world for think tanks and think tankers.

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INASP’s reflections on lessons from recent research communication capacity building experiences

[Editor’s note: Dr Alexander Ademokun is the Acting Head of Programme for Evidence-informed Policy Making (EIPM) at INASP. This post is in response to Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?Capacity development: it is time to think about new ways of generating and sharing knowledge, and Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences]

This is the third in a series of posts in response to a paper that Enrique and Martine produced after evaluating a capacity building for research communication project implemented by INASP and ODI.  There have been some very thoughtful discussions about this paper on the evidence-based policy in development (ebpdn) discussion forum and a couple of interesting blog posts from Caroline Cassidy from the RAPID team at ODI and Vanesa Weyruch from CIPPEC.

The report makes some key arguments and some recommendations from the assessment of this initiative.  During the discussions on ebpdn one of the points that came out was that these lessons, while focusing on a capacity building for research communication project, are relevant to capacity building initiatives more broadly.  Some issues from the discussion that I think are worth exploring further in the context of a wider capacity development conversation are:

  • The need to understand the internal systems of the organisation you are working with:  In the case of this project it is about internal communication systems but in other contexts it may be about the organisational culture or finding out how your project fits into a wider organisation strategy.  This takes time and is labour intensive but it is worth doing from the start.  It also ensures that even if you are building capacity at the individual level it fits into a wider institutional plan and the added capacity is more likely to be made use of.  Understanding where your project fits within a wider plan also reduces the tendency of responding to every call irrespective of ability or capacity to deliver.

For some service providers and intermediary organisations this may mean doing less but better and also being able to say no to offers of new projects.  There is an on-going conversation within the EIPM team at INASP about how we can balance the need to more deeply understand the organisations and context we work in whilst still finding the time to do all the activities we would like to.

  • Work locally and build on what already exists:  This message came through very strongly from Enrique’s and Martine’s report.  This raises some issues that we need to engage with. For instance working locally presumes the capacity and infrastructure exists to deliver the goals of the project.  If they do, that’s great.  If they don’t, have you got the time and expertise to truly build the necessary capacity at the target institution?  You may even find after engaging with the organisation that you are not best placed to deliver what’s needed – will you say so?

The tendency to plug a capacity gap with a highly visible workshop is strong but we know that to build long term solutions you will have to engage more.  This involves asking whose goals you are working towards and how flexible these goals are – is the capacity that is being developed a goal in itself or a means to an end?  The report talks about developing communication strategies with no money for implementation.  This led to lack of interest and lack of ownership.  The model of building on what already exists is illustrated by the example that Enrique gave on the ebpdn where he has decided to take a step back and work with organisations to build organisational communications strategies before building a strategy for a particular external project.  We can all learn from this approach but it requires commitment from the grantees, intermediaries and donors to recognise that we are not just thinking about our specific project but, again, about the sustainability of the capacity you are trying to develop.

Interests, incentives and commitment:  We need to take the time to understand why participants in an initiative are there.  The report mentions some participants who took part because they felt it was important to donors.  For some of us trainers or service providers an opportunity to try something new or work with a particular organisation may be our incentive.  We need to be clear about what we are each trying to achieve by being in the room before we even get started.

This is also linked to commitment.  It is easier to commit if we know what we are committing to: what does the end of the project look like and what happens at the end?  Does the end mean funds stop coming in, mentoring support stops or does the end simply mean a date three years’ down the line?  Working with all involved – funders, grantees and intermediaries to clearly define the end of a project (and what it means beyond financial support) is important at the start of the project.

Use the right people and understand the context:  The report highlighted the value of using local or regional facilitators who may have a better understanding of the context.  Over the last few years, INASP has used the training of trainers’ approach to build a cohort with both the capacity and the remit to deliver capacity building initiatives locally.  A report from a recent workshop in Asia for trainers of policy makers can be found here.  The years doing this work has taught us that just because you are a subject expert does not mean you are a good trainer.  Spending the time to find or build the capacity of trainers to train is just as important as developing or delivering content.  Likewise getting the trainers to understand the content and context before jumping in to deliver an ‘interactive’ workshop is important.  There is only so much small group work/drawing/flipcharts can do if your participants think you don’t understand their realities.  This need to understand how to train is an often undervalued aspect of capacity building.

Linked to this is the understanding that workshops are not the magic bullet they are often thought to be.  At INASP we use workshops as part of a package of activities to engage.  Sometimes this may mean taking the same group of participants through a series of workshops instead of trying to deliver everything in five days.  Other options include adding on a mentoring process before and after a workshop or mixing workshops with other learning models be they online, country visits or peer-exchanges.

We know most of this but don’t always do it yet we respond when the same issues are raised.  This tells me we want to do better.  Using the opportunities and networks we have to share our learning and constructively challenge our approaches is a good thing and I hope we carry on doing more of it.

Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?

[Editor’s note: Caroline Cassidy is the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme’s Communication Officer. This post is a response to: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences and can be read alongside Vanesa Weyrauch‘s own response -coming up this Wednesday]

Building capacity to develop research communications skills and competencies for policy influence is not a new thing. There are a multitude of players involved in the process who have been working in this area for years. And evaluating that capacity development is not really a new thing either. So why then should I be writing this blog if what I am about to say is nothing new? Because, despite clear recommendations for better support, time and time again, donors, think tanks and consultants keep coming up against the same challenges, leaving research communication to the end of the project, then getting caught up in a cycle of workshops and interventions that are unlikely to have the desired impact, and when researchers or teams are already looking to their next area of work.

I arrive at this type of capacity development from ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme where I have been working with the team to build on ODI’s years of work helping to develop the capacity of researchers and organisations in a variety of contexts, to have impact in the policy realm. Enrique and Martine’s evaluation findings from a recent communications project that RAPID and INASP worked on for IDRC last year identify  some very interesting (though sadly not all new) issues that frequently surface when we do this type of work: contextual concerns – in a short space of time, can a consultant really get to the crux of the project without having a strong working knowledge of the context themself; support often comes at the end of a project so that therefore it feels like it is ‘tagged on’ as an extra dimension, rather than an integral one; and ensuring you have the right people in a team involved in the first place, who can benefit the most from the support.

One recommendation from Enrique and Martine that I don’t think we at ODI have seen before is assessing demand and talking directly to the grantees who need support before a contract is even signed, then deciding whether this capacity support should be provided and to whom. This is also related to another report lesson on researcher incentives and pressures beyond communications and the fact that many do not believe it is their role to engage at all – that it is someone else’s job. Therefore, assessing the demand and finding the right people within the organisation to work with as early as possible is absolutely critical, (and then re-evaluating this throughout the duration of the support, as circumstances alter). And if it looks as if it’s not going to have the necessary impact – consultants and think tanks should have the ability to just say no from the outset.

Yet, despite these and other well-established, clear and very sensible principles, there seem to be a few key confounding factors that often impede their implementation:

The first is funding; although there is a growing consensus of the importance of communicating research, funding for communication has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of the economic downturn and the growing ‘value for money’ agenda. It is not always seen as a major priority in the research cycle and often too closely, and even wrongly, associated with branding and marketing, rather than policy influence. Moreover, even in the communication arena donors often favour interventions that lead directly to visible outputs like, the workshop.

Secondly, as Enrique and Martine emphasise, there is often poor planning: donors and organisations realise quite late into a project and budget cycle that the teams need extra support in this area, but with not much time and little funding, a ‘quick’ workshop is often seen as an immediate ‘magic wand’.  As a blog by my colleague, Ajoy Datta highlights – workshops do give a good introduction to the topic and some initial support, but are unlikely to make a real impact once the participants have left the building.

I also think that there is still the misconception, at some levels, that researchers and teams shouldn’t be thinking about the communication of their work until later in the process or indeed towards the end. However, whoever leads on communications needs to engage with stakeholders as early as possible to ensure relationships are cemented and that ideally decision-makers have buy in.

And finally, well even if they could do all of the above, donors frequently do not have sufficiently flexible mechanisms and incentives to support a more appropriate response, as discussed in a recent ODI background note: Promoting evidence-based decision-making in development agencies.

So faced with all this doom and gloom, what can be done? While workshops can still be useful, in RAPID, we are now trying to incorporate them where possible, as part of a wider and longer involvement in a project, and one where ideally we are involved from the beginning. For example, we are currently working on a two year project with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) on communications support to their grantees, knowledge management development (at an organisational level) and another three year project on monitoring and evaluating grant policy influence. The latter is in consortium with three other regional organisations: CEPA (Sri Lanka), CIPPEC (Argentina) CommsConsult (Zimbabwe).  It is an exciting, though we recognise, rare opportunity to work at different organisational levels to do some thinking, develop tools, research and capacity work in a ‘quality learning laboratory’. Support will be provided by locally based teams working in context, prioritising face-to-face engagement (which does include workshops!), but also using online engagement where necessary. All of this will hopefully help to ensure better impact, longevity and buy in through stronger, more collaborative relationships between researchers and policy-makers, and from our side, better contextual knowledge.

And for other projects, where we are working with smaller organisations and donor budgets, we are trying to ensure that there is additional support around the workshops through mentoring, field trips, local partners and we will certainly take on board the recommendations put forward by Enrique and Martine.  And sharing evaluation findings in early discussions with donors can make a big difference. An organisation I am working with decided to implement more face-to-face support, because the donor read and assimilated the recommendations from another project evaluation report.

Communications capacity development is a constant learning process and there is no best-case, winning magic formula. But nor should there be – because good support is so dependent on the organisation, project, participants and the context, and just ‘shoehorning’ a ready-made approach or template is not going to work. This report contains some useful principles to guide new forms of support and to encourage donors, think tanks and consultants alike to not fall into the same traps of short-term support that frequently only deliver mediocre results. And above all, interventions are far more likely to become embedded into the life of a project (and hopefully beyond) if they are part of the project from the beginning and not left as an afterthought.

[Editor’s note: Vanesa Weyrauch’s response will come out on Wednesday but if you’d like to join the conversation with a post of your own, please send us an email or tweet. See the original post for inspiration: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences]

Hans Gutbrod: new head of the Think Tank Initiative

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 again.

“What the heck is a think tank, anyway?” asks an intern

[Editor’s note: Jeanne Muller is a Latin American, Latino, & Caribbean Studies major at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, working as an intern at Grupo FARO, in Ecuador. This is a new version of a post originally published in GRUPO FARO INTERNSHIP]

Think tanks always seemed like rather mysterious entities to me. I imagined them as places, over there in the Capital, where men with big brains and suits cooked up solutions to problems that I couldn’t even begin to understand. More than once my friends have asked, jokingly, “So, like, are you going to think in a tank?”

I’m currently assisting Grupo FARO’s Research Director Andrea Ordóñez put together a report for an upcoming conference in South Africa organized by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Through its Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC seeks to support, both financially and technically, independent research institutions in developing countries. Grupo FARO is one of 49 grantees of the project and is currently coordinating and writing a document profiling and analyzing stories of successful policy influence by various think tanks in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

We’ve been working on this project for several weeks now and still I find myself unable to coherently answer the most basic questions. What are think tanks? Where do they come from? What do they do? I’ve got experts by my side, websites and blogs a click away, and a pile of books sitting on my desk and I’m at a total loss of how to begin answering these questions.

The term think tank is a rather ambiguous one and definitions vary. After having read twelve accounts of how think tanks from all over the world have been able to influence public policy as part of the project, I can say that think tanks can be as different as the colors of the rainbow. They come in all shapes and sizes, have different core values and missions, work in a range of different issues, use different methodologies, and employ different strategies to reach different targets. Many of the authors I’ve consulted define think tanks by comparing them to other entities: “universities without students”, “more intellectual variants of pressure groups”, “idea factories”. Yet these descriptions are hardly satisfactory and only capture one facet of what a think tank is.

At the most basic level, a think tank is a place where people (hopefully smart ones) get together to explore and come up with solutions to important problems. I believe think tanks are most often conceived as independent research institutions that are made up of intellectuals and seek to influence government policy. In the scientific tradition, they use evidence derived from investigation to form and inform public policy. In Spanish “think tank” translates to centro de investigación aplicada or instituto de investigación de políticas públicas (literally “center for applied research” and “public policy research institute”, respectively) (Correa & Mendizabal, 2011, p. 14). Research becomes practical, a tool to create policies that better serve society. Think tanks are institutions that seek to create better societies.

Mine is a very general lay understanding of think tanks. Here are some other definitions and characterizations that I’ve come across so far:

  • Diane Stone (2004) writes that most definitions of think tanks fall into one of two categories: those that emphasize the organizational structure as the defining quality of a think tank and, alternatively, those that examine its functions and what it does (specifically policy research) as the main evidence of its think-tankiness (pp. 1-2). The latter definition has become more popular as think tanks have become more widespread and transformed.
  • Donald E. Abelson and Ever A. Lindquist (2000), speaking on North American think tanks, write, “…think tanks are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations engaged in the study of public policy…” (p. 38). They point out that few scholars have tried to differentiate between think tanks and other non-governmental organizations. What’s more, there is increasing overlap between the natures of think tanks and interest groups as each one attempts to adopt strategies of the other. According to the authors, there are about 300 think tanks in the United States excluding university-affiliated institutes.
  • John C. Goodman (2005) of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) describes think tanks as “idea factories” where intellectuals come together to investigate alternative solutions to policy issues. He distinguishes between “one roof” model think tanks, in which intellectuals are physically gathered, and post-Internet “organizations without walls” which are considerably more flexible and efficient but potentially less established and renowned. Furthermore, Goodman describes think tanks as businesses that work for results; “intellectual entrepreneurs” use knowledge to create change and think tanks “market” themselves and their ideas.
  • Yet the predominant and rigid Anglo-American definition of think tanks fails to accommodate the growing number of think tanks in other countries. Diane Stone explores the complexities of defining think tanks. I was attracted to the following description of hers: “think tanks collect, synthesize and create a range of information products, often directed towards a political or bureaucratic audience, but sometimes also for the benefit of the media, interest groups, business, international civil society and the general public of the nation” (2004, p. 3).
  • In his blog onthinktanks, Enrique Mendizabal offers a definition of think tanks based on what they are not. “The more narrow definition: an organisation not governed by the rules of academia, policy, the media or the private sector and that seeks policy influence through research (also broad) informed arguments,” he writes (2011). Rather, a think tank is at the intersection of all these dimensions and something more.

These are just some of the scholars I’ve consulted so far in my quest to learn more about those enigmatic organisms we call think tanks. I plan to keep building on this knowledge, and of course, to keep you all updated as I do!

P.S. The books I’ve been reading are:

Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences

[Editor’s note: This is the first of four blogs on the subject: Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?Capacity development: it is time to think about new ways of generating and sharing knowledge, and INASP’s reflections on lessons from recent research communication capacity building experiences. Join the debate.]

Donors spend millions every year trying to build the capacity of researchers to communicate their work more effectively. Unfortunately, most of it goes on one-off workshops and attempts to get them to do things they are clearly uninterested in. Sometimes it feels that lessons are hardly ever learned. But sometimes opportunities come about that let us reflect and learn.

Last year, ODI and INASP asked Martine Zeuthen and me to review their efforts to build the capacity of a series of IDRC funded research programmes in Africa. We assessed each one separately and then brought both reviews together in the synthesis below. We found, among other things, that a lot more time needs to be dedicated to planning the interventions.

I am now trying the recommendations listed below in a project I am working on this year with four Latin American think tanks. I’ll report back on how it goes.

Lessons (more detail on these lessons, the recommendations below, and the approaches themselves, is provided in the document in Scribd or GoogleDocs):

  • The best laid plans… In both cases, as well as in other cases consulted for the purpose of this review, the interventions did not go as planned.
  • An expression of interest does not always imply commitment: Although the grantees had expressed their interest in being involved in the projects several were not engaged in learning and did not change their approach to research communication as a consequence. In one case one of the grantees expresses that their involvement was based on the impression that the project appeared to be important for IDRC and ODI. In other words, their participation was driven more by an interest in being part of such initiative to satisfy donor demands rather than in the initiative itself.
  • Researchers have other interests and pressures besides communications: Most researchers are often more interested in researching than communicating. Additionally, while an individual project may be a priority for the donor or for the lead partner, it is unlikely to be so for individual organisations or researchers. As a consequence, any activities that are not seen to directly support their core business are unlikely to be given the priority they demand to be effective.
  • Face-to-face is better than virtual, but the web is a good alternative
  • If it is not done at the beginning, then it is probably too late: In all cases the project came about as a final activity for the grantees, added to the project with only months to go. Furthermore, while the support provided was intended to lead to a communication strategy, there were no additional funds to implement such a strategy. As a consequence, researchers had few incentives to engage more than necessary.
  • The right people matter: The ambition was for the people receiving the support to then go on and train or mentor other members of their networks or organisations. Unfortunately, those who participated where not always the right people for this objective. Senior researchers, network coordinators, and even communicators may be excellent candidates to make use of any skills learned  but that does not necessarily make them the most appropriate ‘trainers of trainers’.
  • Local or regional facilitators and mentors: INASP’s approach involved using regionally based facilitators and mentors. This had a particularly positive effect on the project. The partners learned from the mentors and enjoyed discussing the specific challenges that they were facing with regional professionals. Conversely, ODI was able to connect with the grantees it was supporting only after visiting their offices, and concerns about the consultants’ lack of familiarity with their context were raised.
  • No one is starting from scratch: All the grantees, to different degrees, have some sort of research communication capacity. In some cases, their personal and professional networks ensure greater levels of impact than any formal research communication strategy could ever promise. Furthermore, many communication tactics and channels that are common for developed countries or the United Kingdom, and that ODI and INASP are more familiar with, may not be appropriate for the grantees’ contexts.


  • Start early –right from the beginning: Developing the capacity to communicate should not come as an afterthought. Funders must plan this right from the start and service providers like ODI and INASP should be careful about being involved if this is not the case.
  • Confirm demand before starting: Even before signing a contract, the service providers should contact the grantees and effectively treat them as clients; inquiring as to their interests, concerns, and commitment to the initiative. The service providers must be very clear regarding the time and resources that they will have to allocate to the process. They must also discuss, at length, who are the most appropriate people to be directly involved and what will be their responsibilities.
  • More than a needs assessment: really understand the organisation and its context: The service provider should start by either spending time with the organisation or hosting the relevant people. Above all, the service providers need to understand the culture of the organisations and the policy contexts they seek to affect. This is not something easily achieved through a remote diagnostic.
  • Consider who is the most appropriate source of expertise: It may be that the organisations conducting the assessment are not necessarily the most appropriate when it comes to delivering the support. Would they limit their recommendation to the services they can offer?
  • Build on strengths: The service providers should seek to either improve what they already do or introduce new channels or tactics that build on those that they are comfortable with. This is likely to make a bigger impact than if the consultants bring along an entirely foreign and all-encompassing new approach.
  • Focus on the organisation rather than on single projects: Support should be aimed at strengthening the organisation’s capacity and not just a single project’s visibility. This is likely to attract the support of senior managers that is crucial for any change to take hold within the organisation. The project itself can be used as a pilot to text the new tactics or channels proposed.
  • Earmark funds to implement whatever strategy they develop: It is unlikely that the organisations will dedicate the necessary time to develop a strategy or plan unless they know that there will be funds available to implement it. Just as the service providers are not helping for free, it is unlikely that these researchers will be able to dedicate the necessary time to the initiative unless their time is covered. The service provider should therefore make sure that there are sufficient funds for this purpose. On the other hand, if the organisation has the funds but is not willing to allocate them to this purpose this should be seen as a sign that there is little buy-in from the leadership.
  • Maximise peer-to-peer exposure: Depending on the kind of skills being shared and the individuals involved, the donors and service providers should attempt to ensure that people with the right experience deliver the support. Researchers, for example, are more likely to respond to other researchers; communication officers to communication officers; and managers to managers. This means that it is possible that the service providers will have to look beyond their organisations for the right expertise. Instead, they may act as facilitators and help the organisations find the most appropriate people for their needs.

Read the full report here:

View this document on Scribd

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.

Think tank news: Rohinton Medhora appointed incoming president of CIGI

This blog has always strived to provide useful information about think tank for think tanks. Announcements like these are important (if you would like me to forward similar announcements about new projects or appointments please do not hesitate to contact me).

The CIGI announcement reads:

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is pleased to announce the appointment of Rohinton Medhora as president, effective May 19, 2012.

Dr. Medhora is currently vice president of programs at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a federal crown corporation that supports research in developing countries to promote growth and development. Previously, he was director of IDRC’s Social and Economic Policy programs and led the centre’s Micro Impacts of Macroeconomic and Adjustment Policies and Trade, Employment and Competitiveness initiatives.

Dr. Medhora knows think tanks well. At IDRC he has worked with and supported several think tanks in developing countries and actively participated in the Think Tank Initiative. He recently wrote a blog about think tanks’s policy communities.

Building the Case for Core Support

By Marie-Claude Martin, Program Manager of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI).

As posted earlier in this blog, the Think Tank Initiative’s 2010-2011 annual report has just been released.

This report focuses on the work of the 51 think tanks supported by the Initiative, the contexts they operate in and how they are addressing their challenges.  By working closely with these think tanks, we have been able to document some of the common challenges they face – challenges around governance and leadership, retention and recruitment of researchers, meaningful engagement with policy actors, and long-term sustainability. These institutional issues, while key to their performance, are rarely accounted for in the planning and budgeting of individual projects or short-term consultancies.

The annual report gives examples on how core funding brings to an institution the ability to decide on what, when and how to invest their resources to face these challenges.  Following its publication and the recent posts on TTI (and its next head!) on this blog, I would like to offer an additional reflection on how the Initiative is starting to build empirical and reliable evidence to make a serious case for core, flexible, predictable support to think tanks.

It is widely assumed that think tanks are important.  They are so because they can enrich the thinking and implementation of better governance in the countries they operate in.  When the Initiative was created assertions such as the above were based on a few scoping studies led by the Hewlett Foundation as well as on IDRC’s experience supporting policy research in developing countries.  Three years later, there is still limited evidence to support this claim.

A first step in generating evidence is to generate data.  The Initiative is creating a database that contains quantitative and qualitative information on the institutions we fund. This data encapsulates the diversity of the think tanks: the big and the small, the new and the well-established, the research-focused and the advocacy-oriented, and so on. The data also captures information on their early achievements: from becoming a voice that informs public debate in a particular country to providing solid, robust evidence to back the development of transformative policies.   But this is only one side of the equation; we also needed to understand better the demand for policy research, so the Initiative carried out a polling exercise of the policy communities in which these institutions work (and will do so again in 3 years).

TTI therefore has and will continue to collect a large amount of information on both the supply and the demand side of policy research in (23) developing countries. Some of this data is exclusively for the use of the TTI supported institutions.   But most of it will be aggregated and will be made available to others interested in mining the data and building empirical evidence on think tanks.

We are embarking on a 10 year program and the field of knowledge regarding policy research institutions is emerging. Given the enormous potential for the role that think tanks play in national development processes, other fundamental but “unsearched” questions on success, failures and the many dimensions related to effective local research will be investigated.

Research in social science is a public good (at least most of it), and hence it is underfunded. We expect that TTI outputs, which will also be public goods, will help convince others that policy research must be supported.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report in English and Spanish.


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