[Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in the series Thinking about Think Tanks in the South Caucasus. It was written by Till Bruckner, independent researcher, advocacy manager for Transparify, and regular contributor to On Think Tanks. The series is edited by CRRC-Georgia’s Dustin Gilbreath.]
If you work on policy issues in a transition or developing country, you probably know the standard line on think tanks by heart. Local think tanks build domestic research capacity, improve policy formulation processes and outcomes, and enrich and enhance democratic debates, thereby contributing to the emergence of more democratic, wealthy, and equitable societies. (Yes, you may copy and paste this into your next fundraising proposal if you wish).
Below, just for the heck of it, I’ll make the counterargument. Here’s the rival hypothesis:
Most local think tanks in transition or developing countries do not conduct real research. They just act as front groups for foreign lobbying campaigns. Western powers fund them to capture domestic policy formulation processes and distort democracy. Acting in concert with equally remote-controlled, faux-local NGOs and media, think tanks use foreign funds to push foreign agendas, creating a heavily tilted playing field on which the politics and policies favoured by the West always come out top, and on which real democracy can never emerge.
In September 2014, when the New York Times alleged that foreign donors were attempting to “buy influence” by bankrolling major think tanks in D.C., it caused an outcry across America. Congress rapidly reacted and soon after adopted a new rule requiring Congressional witnesses employed by think tanks to reveal any foreign funding that they and their parent organisation had received. One lawmaker pushed foreign funding for non-profits onto the agenda of an upcoming review of foreign lobbying safeguards. A whole year after the event, some think tanks still seem to feel a bit shaken by the whole hullabaloo.
These revelations were enough to spark a protracted and sometimes paranoia-tinged debate on how foreign funding of think tanks might actually be foreign lobbying in disguise, and how such sinister practices threaten to distort American democracy and exert undue influence on foreign policy formulation in D.C.
Ironically, America was at the same time conducting sustained, highly orchestrated and lavishly funded foreign lobbying campaigns via think tanks to pry the countries of Eurasia away from Russia and to build elite and popular support for a rival pro-Western path consisting of NATO membership, EU accession, and free market reforms.
The thing is nobody in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia called them lobbying campaigns. Instead, we called them “democracy promotion”. Or “civil society strengthening”. And American funding for local think tanks and local NGOs – the borders are blurred as both tend to tank far more than they think – was a key element of these lobbying attempts.
The following description of USAID’s More Transparent and Accountable Governance program in Georgia neatly illustrates how America’s foreign lobbying efforts work: pour money into think tanks, NGOs and the media – not to promote independent policy research and critical thinking, but to push pre-defined Western policy agendas:
[T]he project will focus on strategic policy issues identified jointly by USAID and GoG partners… The project will provide support in advancing these issues through Georgia’s policy development and law-making systems and processes. In complementary fashion, support to CSOs and journalists under this project will align with the same set of strategic priorities where possible… Georgian CSOs, particularly think tanks, will receive training on similar skills under the civil society component of this project.
While some pundits in America get paranoid about think tanks with a bit of foreign funding in their portfolios, USAID posts a comprehensive foreign lobbying strategy on its Georgian website – and nobody considers this unusual.
Considering foreign actors’ role in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and USAID’s apparent willingness to use foreign aid as an inducement in explicitly quid pro quo foreign lobbying deals, this is surprising; even in bigger and more resilient Germany, some people are beginning to raise the alarm about possible democratic distortions as a result of American-funded non-profits’ manoeuvrings.
Efforts by governments abroad to boost non-profit oversight and regulation tend to be dismissed almost reflexively as ‘crackdowns’ by many Western donors and their chorus line of NGO grantees, even in the case of mature democracies such as India. These opponents of meaningful government oversight frequently forget – or choose to ignore – that even the world’s oldest democracy, the United Kingdom, places restrictions on the political activities of non-profits, including those that are entirely domestically funded.
If a foreign government designed and funded a similar programme in the U.S., the participating NGOs and think tanks would almost certainly need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, forcing them to document and subsequently disclose their financial dealings and interactions with officials in great detail.
Non-profit regulation is a minefield in every country, balancing the imperative to preserve freedom of speech (including donor-funded speech) on the one hand, and the desire to protect democratic debating space from excessive distortions by powerful and wealthy vested interests (specifically donor interests) on the other.+
In Georgia, two decades of largely unregulated, nearly 100% Western-funded thinktanking have had positive outcomes in terms of policy, but arguably negative outcomes in terms of politics.
On the positive side, think tanks have largely delivered on their promise in terms of policy development: they have helped to build domestic research capacity and to improve policy formulation processes and public debates around specific policies, and they deserve a lot of credit for this.
On the negative side, I have witnessed how, over time, think tanks in Georgia have narrowed the field for democratic debate. + There’s something impoverished about a political landscape in which every single think tank paper seems to be pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-E.U., pro-market, and even pro-gay rights, with the scope of inquiry reduced on to how best and fastest to join NATO, join the EU, open markets and privatise, and safeguard minority rights.
Meanwhile, alternative voices, choices and options have been pushed to the margins of media coverage, public debate, and eventually electoral politics, in the process politically marginalising Georgian voters with different ideological leanings by robbing them of voice, choice and representation. NATO-or-Putin, privatisation-or-communism, gays-or-gulags – only idiots and traitors would dissent.
Some observers lament America’s polarised think tank landscape with its endless dialectic clashes between Heritage, Cato, the Center for American Progress & Co., but they miss that each side in every debate should get a chance to articulate, refine and communicate its views through rival think tanks. In Georgia, there is no such democratic competition, as only one ideological side has all the think tanks, all of which financially depend on a cabal of Western donors with overlapping agendas.
What can Georgians do to reclaim and diversify their domestic political space? One option is the German model of funding for think tanks tied to political parties with public money. Another is for think tanks to mobilize more money from domestic donors. Either way, if Georgians want to have a healthy democracy, sooner or later they will have to start paying the bills.