An unlikely path to aid: Paying to set up think tanks – Doug Saunders

10 June 2011

Doug Saunders has written a very interesting column in The Globe and Mail: An unlikely path to aid: Paying to set up think tanks. In it he presents the idea of funding think tanks as a rather revolutionary concept -out of the ordinary:

This is not conventional thinking among foreign-aid officials, who tend to see the political sphere as something that should be kept far away from aid dollars, not financed by them. Aid, the old wisdom went, is about lives, not governments.

Of course there is a long history of aid funds being directed at think tanks. IDRC have been doing this for decades.US and German foundations have been pouring resources on think tanks and university based research centres across the world for at least half a century. In Chile, the return to democracy can be largely explained by the roles played by think tanks supported by international aid agencies.

Unlike IDRC’s funding, though, the Ford Foundation, Kellogg, FES, and others have funded politically driven think tanks and partisan think tanks. The US funded the promotion of democracy -and the overthrow of democracy; and the Germans funded particular ideological think tanks (German political foundations are quite good at this).

So this is not new. But what is new maybe is that given the budgets involved this is moving away from the margins and into the mainstream: The Think Tank Initiative, mentioned by Saunders, has a budget of at least $100 million, AusAid has a similar budget but focused on Indonesia, and the World Bank has been going around the countries left out by the TTI looking for opportunities to support existing or new think tanks.

Saunders is right about this being a controversial approach to development. Paying for change through think tanks means that the change achieved is unlikely to be what the funder had in mind in the first place.

It is also controversial because it is Political (with a big P). And here is where his assessment of the initiative (and the idea) is quite refreshing. Saunders assumes (how could he not) that when international donors fund think tanks they are funding political think tanks -he mentions ‘political think tanks’ many times (political think tanks, political thought, political arguments, etc.). But of course, think tanks are political. In Canada, the US, the UK, and anywhere else, really, think tanks are considered, by the local policy community and the political class, as political agents -someone’s tool or vehicle or credible interlocutors of political (big P an small p) thought.

Saunders, I guess, assumes that this type of support is intended to lead to political debate. The kind of outcome necessary to address Rakesh Mohan’s reading of the problem:

“Now that it’s 50 or 60 years since these countries won their independence, it’s high time they started to develop their own institutions of independent governance,” he told me. “Too many of their problems are caused by the short-term nature of the political system, and the lack of lasting knowledge. This is what leads to corruption.”

Reforming the political system demands political research, political arguments, political debate, etc.

What international donors have in mind, however, is far from this. Donors are still afraid of politics (even though what they do is political -reforming the welfare state of a country is the most political thing one can do) and refuse (not the German Foundations) to get involved beyond political studies and funding research (analysis, evaluation, etc.) based policy influencing interventions. And, ironically (although maybe Obama’s promises to the Middle East will change this) US foundations -so active in years past in the promotion of ideological debate- are converging on this idea: funding hard evidence and projects rather than investing in original and (potentially) radically new ideas.

Funding think tanks offers a huge opportunity though. It promotes the type of research that is necessary to develop often lacking public policy debates.

But it all depends on how the funding is provided -rather than the amount.