Brookings moving into India: is this the future for the developing world?

9 April 2012

Both Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment have been working to move into India and set up shop there. According to the story on the Economic Times they have raised at least US$10 million. This is equivalent to the combined size of three of India’s top think tanks: the Centre for Policy Research, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), and the International Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

This is interesting; I have written about funding for think tank in India before, but what really captured my attention this time is the strategy of the foreign think tanks.

This is not the first time they have done this. Carnegie has offices in several countries (they call themselves a global think tank); Brookings has a centre in Beijing and another one in Doha; and other organisations like the Overseas Development Institute have staff and projects based within centres in several countries, too.

For the most part, however, these are initiatives to support in the delivery of their work and to claim greater relevance before their traditional funders. What has been reported in India, however, seems new. Large think tanks like Brookings and Carnegie (both with budgets above US$250 million) could be seen as the equivalent of Tesco or Walmart entering a village full of small corner-shops.

Sure, consumers will win in some respects: high quality research can be guaranteed by these centres. But at the same time diversity will be reduced (or at the very least limited) and it is diversity (in ideas, values, methods, and approaches) that think tanks’ contribution to society is best felt. Those US$10 million could go a longer way if they were provided to more local think tanks. And these would be, in turn, better prepared to handle these new big players.

Arguably, Brookings’ and Carnegie’s influence can take place even if they are not based in India. The internet and their reputation makes it easier than ever for them to influence policy anywhere in the world. But politics are still quite local and think tanks need to be present (physically) to make a real difference: be at the events, meetings, cocktails, join the right clubs, schools, etc.

Over the last few years, several international development think tanks based in developed countries have expressed an interest in building networks and links with think tanks in developing countries: they recognise that they have to be ‘there’ to be relevant and to tap into funds that are increasingly only available in-country as more and more donors award more power to their country offices. But they have faced serious challenges in finding competent think tanks in the countries where the opportunities are higher (where more aid fund are available, at is).

So far the idea that they could set up local offices has been treated with care: among international development think tanks this rings of neo-colonialism. But now that Brookings and Carnegie (and maybe others) are adopting this strategy wholeheartedly, will they reconsider? And is this a good idea?

On the one hand we could think that these US$10 million are US$10 million being ‘lost’ for local think tanks (in this case, much of the money is likely to come from foreign funders, anyway). On the other hand, at least they stay in the country. And let’s be honest, most of the countries where this may happen are places where local think tank capacity is unlikely to develop anytime soon -regardless of how much money funders pour into research.  Furthermore, these foreign think tanks may be able to encourage local philanthropists to ‘give it a go’ in ways that local think tanks may not be able to. After a while, who knows, they may choose to fund local think tanks, too (or instead of Brookings or Carnegie or any other foreign think tank). Similarly, local think tanks may learn from these foreign ones: pick up new research and communication practices that could strengthen their capacity to influence policy and raise new funds locally, for example.

I have argued that programmes like the Think Tank Initiative or the Think Tank Fund, funded by people like Gates or Soros, could use their funders to encourage local philanthropists to take on the responsibility of funding think tanks in their own countries. Bilateral aid should do that too: leverage domestic funds, don’t just create dependency.

So both foreign funders and think tanks have a responsibility, whether they are filling a funding gap or  capturing domestic resources (or resources normally destined to domestic centres), to encourage domestic philanthropy to local think tanks and develop the local think tank community.