Difficult choices for think tanks in the Southern Caucasus

11 December 2023
SERIES Thinking about think tanks in the South Caucasus 7 items

Since the publication of our 2023 Think tank state of the sector report, we’ve had invaluable discussions with thinktankers, foundations and funders across various regions. +

They’ve helped us delve into the regional and local details behind the report’s headline figures – which, while valuable, only offer a global snapshot of the sector.

Our hope is that these discussions mark the start of an ongoing conversation among local think tanks.

Think tanks are political, and politics – even geopolitics – is local.

In this article, I reflect on the discussions we had in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Yerevan, Armenia, in November 2023.

Georgian and Armenian contexts

We drove from Tbilisi to Yerevan, which reminded me that we live in continuous spaces. While flying would have created a disconnect between the two cities, driving reinforced the connections between them.

At one point, when we were a few hundred meters from the border with Azerbaijan, our host commented that we were in the “line of fire”. Whether this was a joke or not, our driver certainly hit the accelerator!

This also reminded me that think tank communities are not isolated: discussions with Armenian thinktankers were never far from the conflict with Azerbaijan. And we cannot forget that Armenia and Georgia are at the cross-roads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

This affects everything: their funding, local politics, their connections to international research and civil society organisations (CSOs), everything.

Although Georgia and Armenia present two slightly different think tank contexts, both face similar challenges. However, the internal Georgian think tank context is markedly harsher than the Armenian context.

In Georgia, the space for engagement with the government appears to be all but closed. They are, at most, very limited opportunities to offer specific technocratic advice.

Yet, the Georgian think tank scene feels more consolidated; fewer questions are being asked about the   is coupled with attempts to limit access to international funding for civil society and a general deterioration in the civic space.

The Georgian experience is not unique. It’s also reported in other regions, such as Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. South Asian, Central American and Mexican think tanks can also relate to this experience. In addition, West African think tanks have also reported a rapid deterioration in their operating space.

Georgia: state of the sector

The following issues emerged throughout the discussions in Tbilisi.

1. Difficult choices

Think tanks always have to make difficult choices – this is true everywhere.

But these choices are harder in contexts characterised by weak democratic institutions and uncertainty. They are affected by the local political context, funding priorities and the reality of organisations, themselves.

Some of these choices involve the following:

  • Significant business model changes, such as adopting a watchdog function because of systemic attacks on civil society
  • Strategic approaches, such as developing more technocratic programmes and communication practices to counter ideological resistance from governments
  • Tactical approaches, such as employing partners or intermediaries to communicate with a think tank’s intended audience

2. Changing audiences

First, think tanks are seeking new audiences – such as CSOs, the general public and international agents abroad – as they search for room in a rapidly shrinking civic space.

Second, their traditional audiences themselves are changing:  policymakers are turning to new sources of expertise, with a preference for close allies.

3. Assessing impact

Does it make sense to think of impact in the same old way? Think tanks in Georgia (and, to some extent, in Armenia) are questioning the relevance of traditional assessments of impact.

Impact must be considered more broadly. It cannot be limited to getting the attention of government, informing their choices, influencing their decisions, or affecting policy documents and budgets directly. It has to reflect think tanks’ new roles.

4. Rethinking roles

Reassessing impact also means rethinking think tanks’ roles. But what can think tanks do in a polarised and antagonistic environment? Maybe they could focus on the following?

  • Maintaining high quality spaces for policy debate (even if the government does not participate)
  • Supporting broader civil society with evidence to inform their own strategies
  • Keeping issues and ideas ‘alive’ for as long as possible, in expectation of a change in the political context
  • Nurturing and hosting the thinkers who will be necessary in the future
  • Re-focusing on more technocratic questions, which don’t necessarily challenge the power of the government but which help address and respond to the material needs of the public
  • Going all-in and becoming watchdogs once again

5. Being ready

In this climate, looking towards the future is more important than ever. If/when there is a change in government, there will not be time to fill posts or develop plans.

The role of think tanks is to be ready and to prepare the people who will join the government.

This requires think tanks to engage with and to convene a wide sector of society – including opposition politicians – to develop shared visions and blueprints of reform.

6. Funding

Are funders prepared to respond? Funders in Georgia are mostly foreign and they generally respond to foreign agendas and mandates.

While it’s clear to Georgian think tanks that business-as-usual is not the best way to contribute to their country’s development, this doesn’t necessarily fit with how funding is allocated in Western Europe or across the Atlantic.

Thus, the value of local foundations emerged in this discussion. They offer an elegant solution to many of the challenges that global policy research funders currently struggle with, such as the following:

  • How can they be responsive to national needs?
  • How can they be accountable to local stakeholders?
  • How can they allocate more resources to local organisations, more effectively?
  • How can they decolonise research?

But think tanks report that the practice of funding is, in fact, worsening. Large funders like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)  once supported organisations directly and with smaller and more manageable grants, but they are now increasingly relying on mega consultancies to manage their funds.

These consultancies take significant management cuts for their services and they burden the final grantees with complicated and bureaucratic procurement processes. These processes are designed to protect them, (for example, against allegations of mishandling public funds) rather than to support local organisations.

The current situation calls for flexibility and political savviness. And it calls for the development and maintenance of a domestic philanthropic infrastructure to facilitate this.

Armenia: state of the sector

The Armenian discussions were equally fascinating and many of the same issues were addressed. These included the following:

  • Polarisation
  • The incongruence between what is needed and what funders offer
  • Changing audiences and how think tanks should focus more on the general public
  • The need to be able to both critique and cooperate

The need to be able to critique and cooperate at the same time was a particularly important discussion.

In both Georgia and Armenia, think tanks felt that they followed an either/or approach in their work: they were either for, or against the government.

Both individually and as a community, they found it difficult to challenge the government – for example, in freedom of information policies or in advising the government on promoting new jobs.

However, different issues also emerged. These included the following:

  • The lack of public funding for policy research
  • New competition with CSOs that label themselves as research centres or think tanks, and the possible need for standards
  • The government’s general (but not absolute) lack of appreciation or respect for think tanks’ work
  • Gender in think tanks and how it manifests in business models, strategies and research agenda choices
  • The important role of the media and how often think tanks forget about this
  • The need to understand the political economy of policymaking across sectors to inform think tanks’ agendas

As this article is an overview of these discussions, it doesn’t reflect the richness of the conversations we had in Tbilisi and Yerevan. But I hope to explore the other issues that emerged more fully at a later date.