May 18, 2013


Politics and Ideas: a new think net

Ever since I started writing this blog I have tried my best to study think tanks from their perspective. It is not always easy as I am usually just visiting an organisation for a few days at a time and my exposure to their context -and my understanding of it- is inevitably limited. Still, I hope that the posts that result from those visits make this clear.

The study of think tanks makes little sense if it is not carried out within the broader study of the relationship between politics and ideas. We can say very little of relevance to Zambian think tanks if we do not first understand the different sources or origins of think tanks there. Nor can we pass judgement on the sometimes baffling nature of the governance arrangements of Peruvian think tanks without understanding the baffling nature of the institutional set up that has governed civil society for the last 2 or 3 decades; at least.

After almost two years of work, a new think net to address this broader and important context has been launched: Politics and Ideas is a new initiative supported by onthinktanks, Vanesa Weyrauch, CIPPECGDNet and others (to begin with).

The idea for this new initiative was borne out the realisation that much of the work currently undertaken on the relationship between politics and ideas, of that context that make the study of think tanks possible, is done in developed countries and that, when this refers to developing countries, it is limited by the researchers’ own lack of knowledge and understanding of the contexts they are nonetheless all too ready to try to fit into fancy but, not always useful, frameworks. Here is a fantastic quote from a paper by Natalia Peres at Fundacion ARU in Bolivia that sums it all up:

There are clearly two approaches to the issue of Research based Evidence in the Public Policy Process (PPP); in the case of Young Court and others [and this would include some of my own work while ODI] the authors have focused on studying how to achieve a more effective influence of evidence on PPP by analysing the links between academia and politics, while the Latin American studies [and this includes the papers in the books I edited as well as research funded by the predecessor of Politics & Ideas] clearly show that research centres are (closely) linked to politics and that, to a certain extent, they serve it.

The choice of the labels is also important. We have chosen to talk of ‘politics’ and ‘ideas’ instead of ‘policy’ and ‘research’ because that is where the interaction really takes place. Researchers communicate Ideas, not just facts or findings or papers. These are used to develop, structure and illustrate the ideas. And policies, anyone working in policy would know, is a fundamentally political process.

Attempts to change this have not always been received with enthusiasm by the very organisations promoting them. Let’s face it, it would mean that these northern based organisations would have to focus more on creating the space for others to study their own contexts than doing it themselves.

This is unfortunate because it is not possible to make sweeping generalisations based on a few cases or the application of catch-all frameworks. We need to make this a subject of academic interest for more researchers and practitioners in the developing world; each one with the interest and skills to study their own contexts and the complex relationship between politics and ideas.

And so, Politics and Ideas:

Politics & Ideas: a think net is a joint initiative of researchers and practitioners to produce and share innovative knowledge linking ideas and politics in developing and emerging economies.

We are a Southern led space that aims to encourage researchers and practitioners to speak about their own challenges and share their perspectives about policy making as they encounter them at the local, national and regional levels.

We aim to think critically about the relations between ideas, research, and politics to support a more constructive use of research based evidence in policy making.

Here is a great video explaining this new initiative:


At the centre of the initiative is our desire to allow researchers and practitioners (and policymakers working in developing countries -the South) to get their ideas across directly and without the need for northern researchers and consultants to interpret them and include them in ‘systematic’ reviews or limit them to text boxes or case studies. Therefore, researchers and practitioners can contribute by submitting their own work, studies and ideas developed by others, and by participating in the different engagement spaces that the initiative offers.

The Politics & Ideas’ research agenda covers a number of important yet often understudied issues. By publishing the agenda and frequently writing about it we hope that others will feel free to help develop it further.  Andrea Ordoñez, former director of research at Grupo FARO will be taking the lead on this. It is not set in stone:

  • Politics. For instance, we want to explore:
    • What factors explain the level of capacity of key players such as political parties and the civil service to make the most appropriate use of research? For instance, their capacity to commission, analyse, make sense, and assess the quality and robustness of different types of evidence.
    • An ethnographic study of the process of decision-making and the interplay between research and other factors such as political affiliation, values, beliefs, etc. in specific cases.
  • Ideas. For instance, we will consider:
    • Where are the next generations of researchers, policymakers and politicians coming from? Are they learning the right competencies to make appropriate use of research?
    • University reform: how to develop functioning universities that contribute to the development of research, policymaking and political competencies on a shoestring?
  • Capacity Development. Including:
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing capacity at the individual, organisational, and system levels?
    • What capacities need to exist in a system for it to promote an appropriate use of research in policymaking?
    • What are the most promising/innovative mechanisms to build capacity of researchers and policymakers?
  • Funding. This is an issue that we have addressed many times in onthinktanks. Politics & Ideas will explore:
    • How do different funding environments (to be defined) and mechanisms (to be defined) affect policy research centres’ and researchers’ behaviours?
    • What factors (legal, economic, cultural, political, etc.) promote and hinder domestic philanthropy for research (i.e. non policy oriented such as scientific research or fundamental research funded via universities) and policy research (i.e. at ‘think tanks’) in developing countries?

To know more about Politics & Ideas, please visit its website. You can follow its updates through Twitter (@politics_ideas) and Facebook (search for Politics & Ideas: a think net).

And, of course, onthinktanks will also share all relevant updates.