An alternative to funding domestic think tanks: bring out the big guns

11 March 2013
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

I often write that we have to stop funding foreign researchers to helicopter over developing countries to undertake what can only, at its best, be mediocre (and irrelevant to domestic dynamics) research. This approach does not contribute to the development of sustainable and robust domestic think tank communities and even undermines them.

But attempting to engineer domestic knowledge sectors or think tank communities is easier said than done. Research funders and their consultants unfortunately do not have the experience necessary to set up new or to develop existing think tanks (we are talking think tanks of a certain scale, here), let alone entire sectors. In my own work with think tanks I usually ‘take my hat off’ at the inventive and capacity of think tank directors who are usually working wonders with the little resources (financial and human) that they can count on. I cringe at the idea of telling them that ‘I know what works’. Ten years of studying think tanks, knowledge sectors and related issues has only made me more cautious of big promises.

Most of the time, too, this kind of investment is done without a clear demand from the local economic, social and political elites; which are fundamental for the development of a think tank community. This is a global rule. So in the end, international funders and, often international consultants are engaged in an effort to develop a sector that few think is necessary or important. In a way, one could argue that maybe funders should first focus on developing the demand for think tanks among the local elites and then, alongside them, refocus their efforts to supporting think tanks.

Who has this experience and who could make the elites of most developing countries pay attention and encourage them to get involved? Well, Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment, with offices all over the world, could pull it off. This is the idea behind the recent opening of a Brookings centre in India.

This approach is common in every other sector. If someone needs to start a new service or business in a country where said service is not available or where the current supply is simply not good enough then the best approach is to buy a franchise or attract a foreign provider as an investment partner. Countries that want to develop their infrastructure, telecommunications, and other sectors beyond their current capacities work hard to attract foreign investors with the relevant know-how. Soon, and greatly driven by these new players, domestic experts appear in the scene and develop the sector further.

And the services and goods developed and sold are never exactly the same. Context matters and businesses know this. Walk into a Starbucks in Lima and you will be able to buy cakes you won’t find in Jakarta; when two new Peruvian food restaurants opened in London last year they adapted the menu to British tastes. So it is perfectly possible that this could work in the world of think tanks.

In the case of Brooking India, the philanthropists behind the initiative, all 24 of them have reversed a trend of Indians funding foreign institutions (e.g endowing Harvard or Oxford) and have instead invested in their own country. Brookings, for these philanthropists, often doubtful of local capacity to deliver a ‘Bookings’ level product, offers them a relatively safe investment.

So this could also be a great way of encouraging domestic philanthropists to think about and fund think tanks. The Brookings brand can attract a great deal many more players and give them a taste for funding think tanks. I would bet that, out of the 24, the majority, if not already, will go on to fund their own think tanks in the future.

It makes sense then to think of this approach as an alternative to the usual way in which think tank funders have been working. Here are some options:

  • Encourage and/or subsidise ‘Brookings’ and other globally recognised think tanks (but real think tanks, please, not research consultancies) to open a local office or franchise. As in the case of India, these new centres should be staffed, as much as possible, by locals; but we should not shun away from taking advantage of the opportunity to bring some foreign experts to share skills that may be lacking;
  • Collaborate with ‘Brookings’ to set up or mentor domestic centres that may eventually form a global network of think tanks; or
  • Work with local philanthropists or think tanks to attract ‘Brookings’ type of think tanks to their countries.

Opposition to this idea will most likely come from, at least, two angles: that this is a northern imposition and that Brookings does not understand development (this is what ‘development experts’ say about anyone who wants to work in their sector). But these have been addressed by the Indian model:

The difference between those two [Brookings’ other international centres: The John L Thornton China Center in Beijing, and the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar] and the India centre is that here it is a standalone company. It has been registered under Section 25 of the Indian Companies Act as a not-for-profit entity. It’s led by Indians, and will focus on issues relevant to India. The second difference is that it will cover the full waterfront of issues.

Which are?
We are yet to define the research agenda. It’s more than likely we will be working on international affairs, economics, energy, environment, urbanisation, governance, legal and social like health and education.

Brookings India is funded by Indians predominantly…Yes, we have 24 corporates and individuals in the founders’ circle of which 21 are Indians.

Certainly I do not expect this approach to work everywhere but there are a few countries that could be good candidates (some already have them): Colombia (and possibly Peru), Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Indonesia, The Philippines, and China. And these could have a regional reach.