End of year post: reflections and a future agenda

19 December 2012

This year, 2012, has been an interesting one for think tanks and this blog. A new full-time blogger, Andrea Moncada, joined onthinktanks.org and several contributors added their views and voices to ours. I want to thank all of them for their commitment with critical thinking and to supporting the development of think tanks in the developing world.

This year, too, South Africa hosted to very interesting events: in June, the Think Tank Initiative’s 2012 exchange and, in November, PLAAS’ The politics of poverty research and pro-poor policy making: Learning from the practice of policy dialogue. In October, AusAid organised a meeting of think tanks in preparation for their Knowledge Sector Initiative.

I have tried to strike a better balance between consultancy with independent research. I traveled to China to meet think tank staff and think tanks scholars, met a few in Australia, and have been able to reach out to many across the world via this blog. Along the way quite a few interesting (at least I think they are) ideas have emerged. I cannot claim them all but here are some of my favourite ones:

There are many more, of course.

This year, too, we produced a first topic page and hope to develop more next year. The first one was on the definition of think tanks. Unfortunately, after two and a half years meeting with thinktankers, and visiting, researching and blogging about think tanks I am none-the-wiser. I am still torn between the ideal idea of the universities without students (that does not necessarily seek to affect policy directly and as aggressively as today), the policy focused and policy oriented think tanks that we are more familiar with today, and the new breed of digitally, issue, and advocacy based ones that we see emerging. Should they do their own research or analysis enough? Should they only accept grants or are consultancies acceptableShould they never take money from those they seek to influence or is this just part of the game?

I have no grand expectations about reaching a final conclusion any time soon but at least I hope that this blog has contributed to an interesting discussion. I know that some readers have disagreed with my views and opinions (some more than others) but that is to be expected when dealing with such a fluid concept and ill-defined sector. (I have been working on this for close to a decade but many of my friends are still puzzled with what I do. ‘Think what?’ … it’s not an easy topic to explain.)

At least, many have responded to my ideas with their own and in doing so have demonstrated their interest and commitment to learning. A quality I think should top any definition of think tanks. It is unfortunate that often the comment that ‘I used to work for a think tank but had no time to think‘ rings true in many organisations. This is a reality that many thinktankers find themselves in. Initiatives like the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tank Fund and the Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative want to change this and so I expect that the next few years will be rather interesting for those of us who want to learn more about what works in different contexts. Successes and failures -and, hopefully, lessons- are to be expected.

There is still a lot more to learn about and I hope that 2013 will offer opportunities to do so. I intend to write more about some of the following topics:

  • Think tanks at the sub-national level: Most efforts to support think tanks are focused on the national level and the possibility of affecting national (high level) policies. But in many developing countries policy needs and lack of policymaking capacity are particularly worrying at the local level. Countries like Argentina, India and Indonesia offer opportunities to learn about sub-national think tanks.
  • Complex governance: Most think tanks’ governance arrangements that I have come across have emerged over years of internal and external negotiations between several parties. Some of these arrangements are quite fascinating -many are as complex and fragile as the British political system; and, like it, it is impossible to think that they could have ever been designed in that way. After so many years working in the UK I must admit that I had no idea. It was easier to assume that what we thought were ‘poor’ decisions (e.g. low investment in communications, slow adoption of technologies, etc.) were simply based on a lack of knowledge: if only they knew, if only they planned… but no, before making the hard choices that think tanks must make they have to deal with very complex governance structures that, for better or for worse, have worked for them so far. We need to know more about them before we go on advocating for changes.
  • Leadership is about learning; and influence is about leadership: This emerged out of a paper I had the chance to work on with Grupo FARO. Rather than just policy ‘changers’, think tanks need to see themselves as leaders or stewards of the political debate. They ought to be more concerned than they sometimes are about the terms of the public conversation. How to influence public discourses, educating the elites, creating and managing spaces for debate, and other such non-directive functions, remain more or less unexplored in the literature.
  • Domestic philanthropy is the only way forward: In my view, unless foreign donors use their efforts to mobilise domestic public and private funds, and in particular domestic philanthropists, the future of think tanks in many developing countries is doomed. Assuming that donors cannot foot the bill for ever think tanks need local funders to emerge -and soon. Latin America is already feeling the pressure. Many donors are leaving and think tanks there have realised that they need to find alternative sources of income. African think tanks are still almost entirely dependent on foreign funding and I fear that some of their practices have inflated their costs to unsustainable levels. Without local sources of funding think tanks will remain as little more than sub-contractors to the Aid Industry that is increasingly being managed by large private sector contractors in collusion with northern development think tanks and NGOs. The Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative and the Think Tank Initiative offer two interesting opportunities to explore how to mobilise this community. Who are they and what motivates them? Should we target the millionaires or future millionaires? Maybe what is needed is a young philanthropists network to nurture the future generation of think tank funders in the developing world.
  • How to connect think tanks from different countries? Within a country, think tanks are usually well-connected and share ideas with each other. I think this is particularly easier where donors play rather small or marginal roles as think tanks are less worried about cultivating relationships with them and instead have more time to engage with their peers. But linking up with think tanks from other countries and regions remains a challenge. Attempts to do so have not always been successful. Should we focus on a policy issue to bring them together? Or is it best to deal with an organisational challenge? Are regional initiatives more useful than, say, efforts to connect across regions or around international events or processes like the G20 or high level fora? How to get think tank directors to open up to their peers and help each other? There are several ongoing efforts to do this but it is unclear yet as to what is it that has been learned. One thing is clear though: getting to know a think tank takes a long time; they are hardly ever what they seem from the outside.
  • Other institutions matter more; and universities in particular: I have been arguing that, when it comes to think tanks’ capacity, what matters most is the strength of the other institutions that make up the society in which think tanks play a boundary worker role. Without strong and competent political and policy organisations think thanks would have no counterpart to address their policy recommendations -nor anyone to ask the policy questions; without a competent media they would not be able to reach the broader public; NGOs and other civil society organisations can help provide a legal platform for them to develop as well as popularise and test their ideas; and the private sector, and particularly philanthropic agents within it, can offer them sustainability. But by far the most important one, in my view, are universities (and the education system as a whole). Not only are they responsible for producing the kind of long term and fundamental research that think tanks need to draw from in the their work, but they are also the main drivers of capacity development across all the different institutions. Support the tertiary education system (in many cases to reform existing universities and in others to help set up new ones) and, in the long run, more and better prepared graduates will join the workforce. Most will naturally join the private sector and the government, others will stay in academia and some will go and work for NGOs. A few of them will find their way to existing think tanks or set up their own. Without strong universities, many developing country think tanks have few options when it comes to hiring. And when they do find someone they have to pay premium salaries to poach them from the private sector, high-paying government positions, or other think tanks and even universities. We need to know more, I think, about how to support tertiary education sectors and universities in particular.

There are other issues that will need to be addressed, too, but they will emerge as we go along. I can count on this blog’s readers to raise them.

A few resolutions for 2013:

  • Cut down on the jargon: I’ve been rather critical of jargon (and frameworks and tools) lately but I cannot claim to be clear of them myself. Not yet, at least. I’ll try harder next year.
  • Add new voices: As usual I will continue to look for new contributors to the blog and encourage others, particularly those with personal experience, to add their views and analysis to the discussion.
  • Get my hands dirty: This year I have started working on setting up a few new think tanks. They have been slow to get started but I think next year will be a good one for them. Already I can see the benefits of being involved in these efforts coming through to my own understanding of think tanks and the challenges they face.
  • Address at least a couple of the future agenda topics.

The next few weeks will be quieter than usual for onthinktanks. I am going to be travelling a bit and will be busy with one of these new think tanks. But come January we’ll resume work on the blog as usual.

Enjoy the holidays!