Carnival Month: Dancing like Brazilian think tanks

11 February 2013

I have always had a special interest in Brazil and its people. I really admire their spirit and particular way of seeing the world and celebrating life with their carnaval. I was lucky to study in Brasilia at one of the best universities in international relations, Universidade de Brasilia. Since then I have remained in touch with friends who, back in the days, were sharing lessons with me and today are the thinking minds of this new super power. They are policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and members of policy research institutes, or what we call “think tanks”. Although I have worked with Latin American think tanks for many years, Brazilian experiences have always been hidden to us, probably because of the language barrier. There is much we can do with portuñol, but certainly not everything.

Intrigued by this exceptional country and its role in the development of the region and the world, I have started exploring the organisations that are helping to shape the future of this huge engine; Brazilian think tanks.

This is the first part of that exploration.

Origins and type

Less than ten years ago the ‘think tank’ label was alien to Brazilians. While it is now less obscure, there is still little research about them. Under this label I refer to those organisations that aim to influence the policies, practices and/or ideas of private or public actors and they use evidence derived from research to back up their arguments. According to the Global Think Tank Directory (2013 edition) there are approximately 82 think tanks in Brazil. However, the types of organisations vary significantly, making it very difficult to narrow our analysis to a single one. This variety is primarily a response to their multiple origins, but the highly complex nature of the Latin American political history has also influenced their development.

If we had to categorise these organisation into types according to their origins, there would probably be four main groups:

Regarding the topics that these think tanks work in, it is more common to find them working on issues related to domestic affairs than on foreign policy or international development policy (and in any case, the latter are closely linked). Centres in Brazil are more concerned with reducing poverty in Brazil; they therefore work in issues such as social protection, education, health and economic policy. One of many examples is the Instituto Cidadania, which is responsible for drafting the party’s manifesto that helped former president Lula get elected. Of particular note is the fome zero (hunger zero) strategy.

As for their structure, they are usually small and specialised, as opposed to large and generalised. Although most are domestically funded (by either companies or the government) there is no real culture of private philanthropy benefiting research institutions with core funding. Consequently their survival is uncertain. The main exceptions are either large public think tanks – which have a constant income that allows them to have large staff and carry out activities more freely – or think tanks associated with endowed universities.

What do they do?

With the diversity of centres in Brazil comes a wide range of functions that they pursue. It is fair to say that they all respond to the need to shape their country and in the process they are trying to find their own model. This constant negotiation with themselves and their context has defined the development of the various functions they play. While they all attempt to influence policy, some of them do it by providing space for dialogue and debate, especially through use of the cluster model. This allows a place for academics to develop their ideas and research which are then shared either through private and public meetings or the production of publications. Others exist to provide legitimacy to policies and practices, with both private and public think tanks covering this function. In particular, legacy think tanks may end up working not only as a means for politicians to build up their political careers, but also as a channel of resources for political parties or elites.

They usually fulfil their functions by producing applied research, working as consultancies, providing advice, interacting with the media, participating in political networks, participating in formal (and informal) political processes or by maintaining relationships with policymakers and providing space for reflection.

What may be unique among Brazilian think tank is the cluster model, described by Teixeira da Silva, which allows the combination of functions under different business models, i.e. academia, private sector, politics, and think tanks. These clusters are more involved in public debates than other types of think tanks.

Influence and communications

Besides public and legacy think tanks, which by definition are engaged with the public sector, Brazilian think tanks have, with some exceptions, little direct and formal interaction with political actors. Although organisations are open about their ideology and have an explicit political agenda, in most cases there is little pronounced interaction with decision makers. The exceptions are those recognised academic institutions such as FGV, USP, UFRJ or Unicamp. In these cases, directors and professors are either past or current government officials. This obviously allows for a lot of interaction between political and academic communities.

Generally, there is neither a habit of think tank consultation, nor a direct and frequent influence on the different phases of public policy cycles. Usually, if a link between policymakers and members of think tanks does exist, it is because of a personal relationship and trust. Similar to the rest of Latin America, being able to influence policies “depends on who you know and the relations you have” as shown in various cases on think tanks political parties edited by Mendizabal and Sample.

Given the broad range of organisations that could be considered as think tanks in Brazil, there isn’t a single communication or influencing approach that could be said to be common for all. To begin with, very few have a communications team. Usually, the same people are responsible for seeking funds, undertaking research, publishing, and reaching their audiences. This lack of dedicated expertise tends to lead to weak strategies that generally result in disorganised way of communicating what it is that the organisation produces.

What’s next?

This is just a snapshot to frame the upcoming blogs on Brazilian think tanks. Up until now we can appreciate that in this context, organisations have a high level of diversity and different forces affect their moves. It is therefore essential to take a closer look at their steps to get what role they are playing in shaping the emerging power. In the upcoming post we will see how the funding model affects think tanks’ influence.