An agenda for 2011: onthinktanks

30 January 2011

Up until now I’ve been posting rather randomly, following what I think may be interesting ideas (at least for me) and links (at least according to those I am following on twitter -follow me @onthinktanks and share my posts with your own networks– and my usual web searches).

From now on I hope to be a bit more systematic in my blogging -partly to give this blog some sense but also to save me the anxiety that ‘no new posts’ tend to create on bloggers. The logic I will follow will be influenced by the following:

  1. I am going to spend the next 12 months or so writing two books: The first one is an extended manual for the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA) for planning, monitoring and evaluating policy influencing interventions.
  2. The second book is focused on the most significant decisions (short and long-term) that think tanks have to make: choosing between policies to attempt to influence, type of research, themes, background of staff to recruit, communication approaches to invest in, programmes to create and close, organisations to partner with, funders to seek funds from, etc.
  3. I am also currently co-editing a book on the political economy on research uptake in Latin America with Norma Correa (following the think tanks and political parties book that I edited in 2009) that will look at the role of research in policy processes, the way it is used by the media, its influence in conflict resolution, and a review of funding mechanisms to promote economic and social policy research in the region. We hope to launch it around July 2011. This is happening alongside another study on the political economy of research uptake in Africa that Cecilia Oppenheim (coordinator of the Evidence based Policy in Development Network) is managing and that Emma Broadbent is carrying out.
  4. Also during the next year I will be working with one or two think tanks supporting them as they undertake important strategic reforms.
  5. Finally, I will be travelling for my work: first I am going to be spending quite a bit of time in West Africa (maybe until November) and then in Latin America (from then onwards). I will, therefore, focus my blogging attention on my immediate environment and attempt to describe think tanks in those regions -or at least find and disseminate useful resources for them.

For this blog then:

  • Over the next couple of months, I will focus my attention on undertaking a literature review on policy influence and think tanks – so you should expect lots of summaries or short comments about books and papers (and links to them). This is important: if you think there is something I should read, please send it over.
  • After that I will be looking for think tanks to study in greater details and therefore I will post some short profiles -I may even start updating (or creating) their wikipedia pages (as I did for Grupo FARO and CIUP). This is also important: If you want me to study your think tank and in the process work with you on some of these issues and challenges, I’d love to hear from you.
  • With the review and the cases identified, I’ll focus my attention on the ROMA book and therefore I’ll update you on issues mostly related to policy influence planning, monitoring and evaluation -this will include posts and resources related to communications and engagement, networking, the organisation of events, online communications, etc.
  • During the second half of the year (August onwards) I’ll probably be quieter for a few months as I get on with interviews. But I hope that by then this blog will have an audience keen to participate and comment.
  • Also during the second half of the year I hope to disseminate some of the outputs from the Latin America and Africa political economy studies.

I cannot stress enough that I would like this blog to be useful for think tanks and their supporters. I believe that think tanks are invaluable for any society with aspirations to better itself -whether they are ideologically independent or not, the proliferation of think tanks can be seen as a proxy for the value that political and economic actors award to knowledge. Their existence alone suggests that a large enough part of a society (and certainly its media) is smart enough not to be bamboozled by easy promises and shallow propaganda (although a degree of this is never going to go away). The fact that politicians and their financial backers in the UK and the US believe that setting up a think tank is a good way to gain power is evidence of the crucial value that ideas play in these countries’ politics. The investment in research and development that has preceded and accompanied China’s and India’s rise to the top of the world economies is evidence of the importance of ideas well beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. Peru, my own country, looks at Chile with envy when it comes to its funding of research and development and think tanks -but little is done to imitate them. It is not a coincidence that Chile is a more mature democracy (with Pinochet and all) but it is certainly not a matter of think tanks creating democracy. The relationship is far more complex.

Ideas need space, but space is opened by ideas. And think tanks are spaces where ideas can be nurtured and from which they can be launched and promoted.

My work is also driven by my own experiences. Up until the 31st December 2010 I worked well within the ‘international development sector’. Development policy, I believe, is what people working for donors (either in donor agencies or contracted or funded by them) and primarily in the developed world call the policies of developing countries. In Peru, when I worked at the Universidad del Pacifico Research Centre (CIUP) we did not talk about development policies: we talked about health policies, social protection policies, economic policies, investment policies, trade policies, etc. We wanted to engage to the researchers and policymakers dealing with those same issues in more developed countries -but not necessarily with international development researchers and policymakers.

In the last six years I have found a world in which some researchers in developing countries -particularly where Aid is abundant- talk about international development to refer to their own work. International development think tanks in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia? I am sorry, but it does not make any sense.

But more worryingly is that I am increasingly encountering researchers from these institutions keen to join the ranks of recent graduates of ‘development studies’ postgraduate degrees -which are interesting but rather generalist courses about developing countries rather than about any policy area in particular -or any country in particular. Again, I feel it does not make sense: would the Bank of England hire someone who studied ‘British Studies’ instead of an economist? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, driven by a global mandate, donors, think tanks, NGOs and consultancies (North, South, West and East) have become expert generalists.

And so the main reason why I decided to focus my attention on think tanks is that I think that much of this nonsense (i.e. ‘it does not make sense’) is based on the absence in many countries of a policy research community that is independent of the international development community. This is true for developing as well as for developed countries -after all, most international development think tanks in developed countries (or research programmes, research and advocacy networks and organisations, NGOs, consultancies) are largely funded through contracts from the main bilateral and multilateral agencies that they claim (or attempt) to influence. Unlike domestic policy issues, international development does not generate the same passions motivate the rich and powerful to fund policy research (with some exceptions, of course), and so they have few options.

The same is happening in many developing countries where the only funding available comes from donors or northern organisations (think tanks, universities, consultancies, and NGOs) who act as financial intermediaries. In some middle-income countries private sector consultancies are making up for the loss of funds from donors’ refocus on the least development regions of the world.  I wouldn’t say that independence is necessarily being lost because in many cases this has always been the case; but certainly independence is unlikely to develop in these circumstances.

The international development sector, almost self contained and with its tentacles are far reaching, may be leaving little space for different ideas to emerge.

Little objection is heard for instance when policy objectives for research programmes designed in London or Brussels remain unchanged across countries and regions: the same policy objectives for Ghana, Malawi and Ethiopia? For Ecuador, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka?

And this focus on specific policies (and in some cases impact on specific service delivery areas) taking no notice of the absence of broader narratives or debates is akin to running before learning to crawl. Experience from Chile, for example, shows that the highly successful support provided for decades by foreign foundations focused on the review of old and the development of new national political, economic and social narratives. Think tanks in Chile can now make specific policy recommendations because they have already gone through the basic foundational research and debate on the big ideas that guide them.

The same was true for Thatcherism, New Labour and David Cameron’s Big Society: first big ideas then specific policies.

In Africa, however, big ideas, based on the type of research funding being pumped out of London or Brussels, are seen as a waste of time and the race is on for policy impact.

However, pushing back is very difficult when both money and ideas are imported. I therefore believe that unless funding for think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia comes from within their public and private sectors (as is the case in a few countries) this dependence will continue -and the hegemony of generalisms will prevail.

I truly hope that my work on the books and this blog will contribute, even if only by encouraging a discussion, to the development of national think tank communities: their own ideological divisions, preferred funders, domestically competitive expert markets (ah, this is another issue -expert markets are distorted), think tank awards and policy priorities.

I do not expect to have all the answers but I hope to uncover a bit of the richness of this community.