Competition on ideas? money? people? influence? names?

19 April 2012

The marketplace of ideas is a powerful metaphor. It promotes the illusion that is a market (with buyers, sellers, and intermediaries) and that what is being traded are ideas (that, in the case of think tanks come from research). But is this so?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in The Balkans, particularly in Belgrade working with a think tank there (more on this later) and a few new ideas have emerged out of my conversations with the staff, its funders, comparators, policy audiences, and others in their policy community. One of these ideas is that think tanks compete (and collaborate) with each other (and other organisations) on a number of fronts -and not just on ideas.

Think tanks can compete on ideas. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Given think tank funding approaches few think tanks in developing countries have the freedom to develop their own agendas and are instead limited by what their funders want to know. Funders in turn allocate their funds to avoid duplication (this think tank to study public health, that one to study economic policy). This means that few policy issues are debated by think tanks promoting different ideas and solutions.

There are a number of new institutional funders out there (the Think Tank Initiative and the Think Tank Fund are two of them) but their support is never really sufficient to give the centres the upper hand in the development and pursuit of ideas. Their research is still conditioned by the myriad of contracts they sign with other funders, northern think tanks or NGOs, and consultancies.

A good indicator of whether a think tank works as a consultancy (studying only what their funders ask them to) is that they will usually demand more coordination between funders to avoid duplication. Research driven think tanks (independent research) are usually happy with the idea of a public debate, for which duplication is necessary.

Think tanks also compete for funds. Donor policies that have reduced funding for research in Latin America, Asia, and The Balkans, for example, have led to more and more organisations (calling themselves think tanks) competing for access to fewer resources. This, combined with donor’s approach to funding described above, leads to specialisation and a focus on very narrowly defined projects which reduce the number of policy processes the think tanks can influence.

Think tanks also compete for people. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than in any other place, I have been astonished by the salaries paid to some researchers: upwards of US$100,000 for mid-level (and not necessarily top quality) researchers would not surprise me. These are salaries nominally higher than those paid in the United Kingdom and the United States where think tanks are more readily available. In fact, think tanks in the UK would not be expected to pay much and, since they are instead seen by young bright graduates as stepping stones into politics, policymaking, and international organisations, salaries are relatively low.

A better comparison, however, is with think tanks in other developing countries. Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Balkan researchers salaries are significantly lower -at least based on what I have seen. In Argentina US$20,000 will ‘buy’ you a top researcher. The pattern that emerges from this anecdotal evidence is quite logical: where there are more qualified researchers, salaries are lower than where the supply (stock and flow) of qualified researchers is low.  To attract good researchers, many African think tanks need to pay salaries that compete with the private sector, international organisations, and the government.

In these circumstances, more funding for think tanks normally leads to a competition for the few ‘free’ researchers available or to poaching them from other sectors (often the public sector –which is in it self a problem).

Think tanks also compete for access to policy spaces or processes. Decisions, despite all the talk about complexity and the corresponding jargon, are not made in the cloud. Being present at a key meeting at the ministry of finance matters. Having breakfast with a minister or his or her advisors matters. But not everyone can get a seat at the table or share ideas over coffee. Access is restricted and conditioned.

Some spaces are public and therefore more think tanks can participate (e.g. open consultation processes) but others are limited by ideological or technocratic conditions. In many cases the most ‘academically’ perceived think tanks will be given access to technocratic discussions -and will be trusted as impartial sources of advice; but no more. In other, ideologically identifiable centres will have an advantage and may even be given the lead in developing legislation and policies.

Often, access depends more on individuals within the think tanks than on the think tanks themselves –personal networks matter everywhere (developed or developing countries). And so the competition for people is crucial. Funding also provides access: a donor usually has the power to open doors for their grantees –figuratively and literally. So competition for the right funding is also important when it comes to access.

In addition to all of this, think tanks do not just compete with each other. More often than not they compete, depending on their business models, with NGOs, academic research departments, and consultancies (both in their countries and abroad). For example, ODI in the UK competes with think tanks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia because they bid for research projects that could very well be carried out by local research organisations. But ODI has access to DFID (and other northern donors) that local think tanks cannot achieve, it can hire researchers with more ease than local think tanks, and can build up its ‘organisational competence’ by referring to projects carried out by programmes and researchers across the organisation regardless of whether the proposed team has the experience or not. And since donors like to work across countries and regions, a single local think tank in Sri Lanka or Ecuador or Rwanda will find it difficult to compete.

NGOs have also began to develop their research capacity (or at least the perception that they have one) use this to demand access to more technocratic spaces –often reserved for academics and think tanks.  Consultancies, too, taking advantage of their higher capacity to win large programmes are developing ‘think tank’ style initiatives that directly compete with think tanks –of then in their own policy communities. Take for example the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) that is slowly starting to publish and disseminate policy research outputs at the national level branded as CDKN products. What chance does a small sustainable development (or related) think tank stand against the combine might of PWC, ODI, and others?

Finally, there is competition on the label: Many organisations that would have never before called themselves think tanks are beginning to do so in response to the increasing interest of donors on this particular type of organisation. Campaigning NGOs and networks are talking about setting up ‘research units’ and service delivery NGOs and consultancies are claiming to be think tanks because they are learning and sharing their lessons with others, to mention two cases.

One effect of this competition is that the concept of think tanks gets muddled-up and this can lead to a loss of credibility for those who do deserve the label. Another effect is that civil society (and society as a whole) may lose other types of organisations that are valuable in their own right and whose existence and strength in fact support think tanks.

So what?

  1. Avoid simple metaphors like ‘marketplace of ideas’.
  2. Funders need to pay more attention to how their funding strategies affect think tanks and their communities (including all these other actors) at the global, regional, and national levels. Demanding that more money is spent ‘in country’ is not responsible policymaking; and neither is it to channel funds via large northern think tanks or corporations.
  3. Funders need to fund the development of new generations of potential researchers by investing (and leveraging public and private funds) in universities. Workshops are not enough to learn how to be a good researcher -this has to be learned from early on.
  4. Funders should also attempt to leverage domestic funds to reduce dependence on foreign funds but also make research funding more local -and avoid, in that way, overfunding and dependence on northern centres, NGOs, and consultancies.
  5. Think tank funders have to publish their own definitions of think tanks. This has to be flexible (assume that it may change over time) and local (a think tank in Peru does not have to be the same as a think tank in Sri Lanka). Other types of civil society organisations should also be supported and not encouraged (even if unintentionally) to ‘become’ think tanks.