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Posts tagged ‘origins’

Think tanks in Latin America: what are they and what drives them?

Latin American think tanks have, since their pre-independence origins, developed into a diverse group. This essay explores the types of think tanks found in the region and their main drivers. It argues that think tanks face a serious challenge going forward.

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European think tanks and the European Union

What is the relationship between European think tanks and the European Union, and how can European think tanks be defined and classified? A report by the Bureau of European Policy Advisers offers an overview of these issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the importance and roles of think tanks, India

What is the value of think tanks? In this article by Sangeeta Saxena (with a good quote to begin with “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”) Indians ask Indians (no donor involved) about the importance of think tanks.

The directors of 5 Indian think tank offer their views -which give this blog’s readers and me some interesting insights into the perception of the role of think tanks in India. I have picked a few quotes that relate to the links between policy and research but there is plenty more on the origins of think tanks, their business models, funding and their activities:

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), Director, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi:

Does the research in think tanks influence the policy making of the ministry of defence?

I do not try to find this out. Once we have published or discussed matters, we forward it to the ministry but do not ask them whether they have used the content in decision and policy making. That is not my concern.

What should be the role of a defence think tank?

The defence think tanks do the security related thinking for the country. It thinks 10 to 20 years ahead and suggests developments on the strategic fronts. It conveys these to the government. They create a platform for brainstorming on issues of security and strategic planning, and help the officials in decision making. These think tanks also create an awareness in the Indian elite, civil and military on matters of security, so that they can prepare themselves to be a major part of the thinking world. It creates and spreads knowledge.

Rear Admiral Ravi Vohra VSM (Retd), Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi:

Do ministry of shipping, defence and industries recognise your role in maritime issues management?

When 90% of trade is dependent on sea routes, it is important to safeguard issues affecting the oceans. Harbours and security aspects are important for the nation. If ministry and bureaucrats are asked questions, there are no answers as these officials keep busy. So thinking has to be done by us. We have never attempted nor tried to question government policies which are decided by officials.

What is the role of the Indian Navy in NMF?

In a record time of one and a half months navy did a good job of getting the infrastructure ready. It was handed over to us and we also have two officers of the navy posted on our strength. We cover both civil and military maritime issues. In addition we also cover issues concerning merchant navy and coast guards. Officers of both navy and coast guards attend our round tables and seminars.

Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal(Retd), Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi:

Last five years have seen the unnecessary mushrooming of think tanks in India. Comment.

The larger the number of think tanks we have, the better we will be as a nation.

Does the bureaucracy listen to your suggestions and conclusions on various issues?

Bureaucracy realises that there is no harm in listening to the think tanks. We give them the reports regularly. Real distinction I would like to make is that when you are in policy making and execution, you have no time to study. So think tanks become important. Things are looking up in the think tank community in India.

In USA think tanks officials get incorporated into government positions of importance. When do you see India progressing towards such a scenario?

Cross pollination of bureaucracy and think tanks is not happening in India. That is why think tanks do not get taken seriously. Politicians are blissfully unaware of their existence most of the times. But we are keeping our fingers crossed for things to move in the right direction.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) V R Raghavan Director, Delhi Policy Group (DPG) and President, Centre for Security Analysis (CSA) New Delhi:

Does DPG forward all its research to the MOD and MEA?

Sure we send every document to the ministries. They get hundreds and hundreds of documents and they go into raddi. There is no system of reading and analysing them. If it goes by name to the secretary and other bureaucrats it gets acknowledged. When highlighted centre pointers go by name to ministers or PMO we get a call.

Do you feel it is utilised at the policy making level?

Sure, we feel it is utilised at policy level. Publications are reference material and is used in research. Our objective is to influence the policy makers to think. They continuously ask us for information. There are highly competent and professional people in the ministries.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) P K Singh Director, United Services Institution of India, New Delhi:

Does USI influence policies of the government, on defence and national security?

We have tremendous synergy with government. We help in creating a tentative road map keeping national and regional interests in mind.

What is the need of having thirty odd think tanks in Delhi?

Think tanks are like sounding boards to get people from all over the world to ideate. It is good to have so many think tanks as it gives cross section of ideas and research.

I found interesting that there was a very marked focused on research -each one to his/her job: researchers do the research and policymakers and politicians should use it (or not) to make decisions. Nonetheless, their activity portfolios all include a range of active communication initiatives designed to facilitate this uptake.

And then there is the unfortunate situation that think tanks are not yet supported by India’s corporate sector (and philanthropists) -at least not at the level that Indian commentators expect.








Observations: The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

I should be going bed now but could not wait until tomorrow morning to post this fantastic article by Bora Zivkovic about the history of science and journalism told through the lens of the development of new media –Observations: The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again.:

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

His account of this history touches on a number of important issues for think tanks today; in particular the shared history of research and journalism, and the new potential capacity to communicate with our audiences directly -with no intermediaries or filters. The same technologies provide our audiences with the tools to design their own filters and become intelligent (critical) consumers of information (I found this following some links on twitter, by the way: you can follow onthinktanks too).

In Zivkovic’s account, scientists are re-learning how to communicate with non-scientists and taking advantage of the simplicity of blogs, twitter, wikipedia, etc. In the social sciences the same thing is happening. VoxEU (I’ll blog about this some other day) is a perfect example of a direct communication channel between economists and their audiences -good content, an editor and the web platform are all that is needed: no communication managers, complex communication strategies, media strategies, media contacts, etc.

After all, free from the pressure of the traditional media and the need to reach as large an audience as possible, these new media channels allow researchers/scientists to target niche groups of genuinely interested people. And this provides an excellent opportunity to develop more meaningful relationships –stronger ties– and engage in proper conversations that facilitate the communication of complex ideas.

Anyway, it is a long article -but worth reading.



why are there no think tanks here?

And so here comes christmas once again. I’ll be taking a break from the blog but will be back mid January. In the meantime I leave you with the results from the survey:

21 responses:

  • 10 of you said that people in your countries do not know what a think tank is
  • 5 said that they were seen in a generally positive light
  • 4 said they were seen as nothing more than rent seekers or lobbyists
  • and 2 offered comments: “champagne socialists” and “Only a small fraction of high educated people know”

Not the greatest survey in the world but a good start, I think. Not only that, the post generated a bit of a debate on the evidence based policy in development network (ebpdn) -that you may read about here (you might have to sign up). Here is a gem from Bert Nanninga on Malawi (the emphasis is mine):

Unfortunately TT’s do not flourish well in Malawi, where I’m working 
for the past 17,5 years. I have not yet come about such intellectual 
forum so far, even though I’ve been lecturing at one of the 
Universities. I have three reasons to ponder about:

1. Intellectuals were considered to be a threat to the first 
independent government of Dr. Banda; in order to save their lives 
they found refuge overseas and -even after so many years- many still 
live in the diaspora. Others decided to stay mute and follow the 
system; they were silenced within.

2. A tradition of critical thinking was never encouraged (this 
started already under the colonial rule!), and even today the 
education system does not promote such development. The primary and 
secondary education efficiently pumps in a lot of knowledge, but at 
the same time blocks individuals to develop an independent mind. 
’Repeat what the teacher says; if you say it in your own words it is 

3. In a ‘loyalty culture’ (as opposed to a ‘truth culture’) as is the Malawian, it is more important to respect power and authority than to search for facts and causalities. What to do if your research 
identifies problems with the running of affairs by the Government of 
the day?

Advising the Government on such issues, even if done with 
great care, may be explained as an attempt to undermine the 
credibility of these authorities, which can cost you dearly. Why 
burn your fingers or stick out your neck? 
Western countries value ‘truth’ and ‘searching for causalities’ a 
lot; asking ‘why?’ is a welcome question. In a culture where 
traditionally everything is dominated by ‘power’, especially when it 
is unseen and based on secret wisdom, such searching is basically unwelcome and is counter-cultural.

Of course, we need to relate this to the issue of poverty: as long as self-sufficiency is not available, dependency on existing structures 
will limit true freedom. Universities need to be breeding places of 
TT’s, not just hubs for copying and sharing information.

This led to an interesting discussion on how to promote critical thinking in a country -but you’ll have to join the ebpdn to read about it.

Think tanks in East and Southeast Asia – an Overseas Development Institute study

We have just published a paper on Think tanks in East and Southeast Asia that we worked on last year.

Think tanks across the developed and developing world have received considerable attention in recent times with western donors investing in developing country think tanks on a large scale. For instance, five major donors have together committed US$ 110 million to the Think Tank Initiative until 2014.

Nevertheless, think tanks are still traditionally seen as a mainly Anglo-American phenomenon, emerging across the developing world in the last few decades. In addition, analyses of think tanks in developing countries have been mainly historical and apolitical.

We took inspiration from the book ‘Think Tanks and Political Parties in Latin America’ by Mendizabal and Sample (2009), which challenged the existing approach to both the research of think tanks and the debate over their definition, to understand think tanks in East and Southeast Asia, placing their origins and development firmly within their political context, both nationally and regionally.

This report presents two factors influencing the politics of East Asia – the politics of power and the politics of production. Using these factors as a lens through which to view politics the report identifies three key political threads:

  1. nationalism;
  2. the extent of pluralism or liberalisation; and
  3. the concentration of power.

These political threads have shaped the origin and development of think tanks in three ways: 1) their location relative to the bureaucracy 2) their thematic focus and 3) the political interests they represent.

the Think Tank Initiative 2010 annual report

The Think Tank Initiative has published its annual report. you can download, in Spanish, English and French, here:

I’ll read it and comment on it later. But feel free to do so, too.

At first glance, though, something I found interesting is that during the selection process, IDRC received:  23.5 think tank applications per country in Latin America, 24.6 think tanks per country in West Africa, 27 in East Africa, and 31 in South Asia. I would have expected more think tanks to exist in Latin America than in Africa on the basis that Latin America is a middle income region and has certainly more mature democratic institutions (that don’t always get it right) including a fairly old think tank tradition.

Is it that there are more think tanks in Africa than in Latin America? Why? Or is it that more organisations are considering themselves think tanks in Africa?


on the formation and support of think tanks

At an event on intermediaries today I was asked about the incentives that may drive parliamentarians to demand research based evidence -and how would one go about finding out.

I’ll deal with this later, but in the meantime, here is an interesting theory on the origin of think tanks -that is linked to this question. According to Anthony Bertelli and Jeffrey Wenger, in attempting to explain the recent growth in the formation of think tanks in the United States:

committee debate creates incentives for legislators to seek research-based, policy-analytic information supporting competing policy positions. As political entrepreneurs recognize this demand, they supply think tanks, just as scholars have suggested they supply interest groups. An important macro-level implication of this theory is that as legislators’ ideological polarization increases, the demand for policy analysis increases, as does the number of think tanks supplied.

It is worth considering the push factor provided by the political entrepreneurs described by Matt Bai in his book, The Argument,  but this theory of think tank formation is interesting. Bertelli and Wenger offer research funders eager to ensure sustainability and value for money for their investments an attractive entry point. To promote the supply of research, funders could attempt to strengthen the demand.

This demand side approach would involve a number of options: support to political parties, strengthening (and in some cases creating new) parliamentary and evidence based policy making processes,  developing of a highly sophisticated intellectual and investigative media elite capable of challenging public policy debates, etc.

None of these are simple interventions but they, unlike the current supply side alternatives, more likely to promote the development of a sustainable market of ideas -fuelled by a hungrier and more discerning domestic user audience.

There is a fundamental problem in the current approach where funding decisions are still made by donors in western cities with little or no regard for the absorptive capacity of research communities in developing countries (and which terribly distort the research market and the labour market for experts in the poorest countries -but this is for another day). Hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) are channeled directly from western donors or indirectly through western think tanks (and increasingly consultancies) acting as business development agents for souther researchers and research centres.

What incentive then do they have then to respond to policymakers’ needs and demands (if and when they are expressed)? None. A Ugandan participant at the intermediaries event, who works for the Ugandan Parliament’s parliamentary research service (which has a parliamentary research service and so is already part of the way along the road development road I am suggesting), was complaining that even when parliamentary committees publish calls for evidence in national newspapers hardly any researcher comes forward. But Why would they?   Their audiences, quite clearly, are the western researchers and policymakers who fund them.

A domestically managed and resourced fund which competitively allocated research contracts (like ESRC in the United Kingdom or CIES in Peru) would quickly shift the attention of researchers from foreign to domestic audiences. Researchers would quickly realise that they must engage in domestic policy debates or perish.

on the definition of think tanks: Towards a more useful discussion

This is the presentation I gave at a recent meeting of think tanks hosted by ODI in London. It draws from other posts in this blog but, I hope, provides a stronger argument. It also has a Prezi:

“I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having? It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’

And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’

And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided—the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’

And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says . . . .’ ”

From: Peter Singer’s article on think tanks for Brookings.

The common definition, employed  by experts in the field like Diane Stone, James McGann and others, describes them as a distinctive class of organisations –not-for-profit and different and separate from universities, markets and the state- that seek to use research to influence policy.  However, as I found in the study of think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia, these particular think tanks only exist in the imaginary of those who idealised the Brookings and Chatham Houses of this world; and more often than not, we find ourselves dealing with the exceptions rather than the rule -this was the point of my presentation on think tanks at an event in ODI in 2009: hybrids are the norm.

Tom Medvetz paper, Think Tanks as an emergent field, provides strong arguments against this view. He argues that this definition is limited because:

  1. It privileges U.S. and U.K. think tank traditions over all others;
  2. It leaves out many present day examples that do not fit with the definition: corporatist think tanks in Japan, public think tanks in Vietnam (RAND, by the way, is a federally funded organisation), university based think tanks across Latin America, partisan think tanks in Chile, Uruguay, the U.K. and the U.S., etc.;
  3. It robs the concept of think tanks of historical depth forgetting that the first think tanks were offshoots of the very same institutions they are now supposed to be independent of; and
  4. Most significantly, it fails to recognise the importance of the concept itself: He argues that the use of the label is a strategic choice made by organisations within a complex system of actors and relations.

This last point is worth exploring further. The sudden rise of funding for think tanks has seen a rise in the number of organisations positioning (or-rebranding) themselves as think tanks.

Medvetz explains how this positioning as a think tank involves a necessary ‘complex performance of distancing and affinity’:

  • On the one hand think tanks assert their independence by differentiating themselves from universities, advocacy groups, public bodies and lobbyists; but
  • On the other hand pursue strategies or behaviours that mimic their values and practices: appointing fellows, investing in communication departments and an array of advocacy tactics, pilot projects and policy proposals, and seek to actively influence and lobby policymakers.

The act of definition is then the art of forging the identity -independent or dependent- that best suits the organisation’s objectives; which, according to Medvetz’ analysis, is the accumulation of authority within the policy space. And in a multi-actor world, this is essentially a process that takes place in relation to others: we define Brookings in relation to the Heritage (U.S.), ODI in relation to IDS (U.K.), and CIUP to GRADE (Peru).

But also, And this is left out of his analysis, this definition takes place over time and is likely to change to fit the chaining context.

Another reason why the traditional definition of think tanks is flawed is that it does not offer us anything of practical value. What does one do with a definition that describes something as’something else’ or  ‘not something else’? And what do we do when the one thing it says think tanks do is also what lots of other organisations do, too?  How does a think tank use this definition to decide how to invest its resources, where to position itself, how to influence, etc?

To address this I attempt to describe think tanks according to their functions as well as to their position in the knowledge policy space. According to recent work by ODI in Latin America –and drawing form the literature on think tanks– we could argue that think tanks can fulfil at least six roles (or services) in their political context:

  1. They can provide legitimacy to policies (whether it is ex-ante or ex-post);
  2. They can act as spaces for debate and deliberation –even as a sounding board for policymakers and opinion leaders. In some context they provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas;
  3. They can provide a financing channel for political parties and other policy interest groups;
  4. They attempt to influence the policy process;
  5. They are providers of cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties and governments; and
  6. (I have added Hugh Gusterson suggestion of) An auditing function for think tanks.

This approach to understanding think tanks opens the door to further analysis. The following framework (based on Stephen Yeo’s description of think tanks’ mode of work) might help.

First, think tanks may work in or based their business on one or more business models, including:

  • Independent research: this would be work done with core or flexible funding that allows the researchers the liberty to choose their research questions and method. It may be long term and could focus on ‘big ideas’ with no direct policy relevance.  On the other hand, it could focus on a key policy problem that requires a thorough research and action investment.
  • Consultancy: this would be work done through commissions with specific clients and addressing one or two key questions. Consultancies often respond to an existing agenda.
  • Influencing/advocacy: this would be work done through communications, capacity development, networking, campaigns, lobbying, etc. It is likely to be based on research based evidence emerging from independent research or consultancies.

Second, think tanks may base their work or arguments on:

  • Ideology, values or interests
  • Applied, empirical or synthesis research
  • Theoretical or academic research

As described in this table showing the mode of work and basis of the messages, this kind of analysis is more likely to follow from a functional than the traditional definition.

Tom Medvetz provides an alternative (and complementary?) framework for analysis that focuses on the positioning of think tanks within the social space.

With this in mind it is possible to explore where and how the organisation might attempt to bring about change (internal and external).

To compete in one or another space, think tanks might have to trade-off some competencies or skills. For example, to succeed among academics, think tanks might have to trade-off their communication competencies (because of limited resources as well as pressures from more academic staff to focus on academic publications rather and policy engagement).  And communications competencies (broadly defined) are what think tanks may offer academic researchers as a contribution to a productive partnership.

But, of course, deciding this depends on where the think tank decides to position itself; and some think tanks may be closer to the media, politics or economic power.

These decisions, about the skills and competencies on which think tanks should invest, should be easier if the functional boundaries of the organisation are more clearly defined.

In the end (or as in the start of the presentation) everyone has an opinion about what is a think tank.


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