Evo, think tanks and policy in Bolivia

18 March 2011

Something for the weekend: This paper on the role of think tanks in Bolivian politics by Rafael Loayza Bueno and Ajoy Datta, has just been published by ODI. It was a particularly satisfying moment when Rafael, after working on it during a Hansard Fellowship internship at RAPID, told me that when I first suggested that he should write about think tanks and policies in Bolivia he thought nothing would come out of it; he had proven himself wrong.

Why is this important? Well, because it is a small step in making this a ‘researchable issue’ (as Norma Correa said). Now Rafael is back in Bolivia thinking of think tanks.

The paper is an interesting account of the role of research in Bolivian policymaking -something many people would doubt given the strong ideological messages we hear about how policymaking is done there.

On the surface, the role of knowledge and evidence in Bolivia’s political landscape appears to be minimal. However, over the years, international donors have invested plenty of economic resources into developing think tanks that produce both knowledge and evidence. This paper seeks to examine the utilisation and impact of this knowledge in Bolivia’s recent political history, as well as any links with political institutions. It explores how Evo Morales came to power through the support of indigenous social movements and their relationship with think tanks.

But think tanks are also ideological (and so are donors, as Rafael has found out) and so their contribution to policymaking cannot be dismissed on these grounds. On donors:

International actors played a key role in supporting the production of relevant knowledge. Neoliberal think tanks received funding from the World Bank, the IMF, IADB, CAF while think tanks in support of indigenous social movements received funding from several European donors. They also received support from the Anti-globalisation movement and the World Social Forum (WSF). And just as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz provided policy inputs during the neoliberal era, celebrity academics such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt came in support of Evo Morales’ political project. Think tanks often provided cadres of policy-makers in both the neoliberal era and once Morales assumed presidency.

This is very important because the involvement of these very same actors can explain the rise of experts and think tanks in much of Latin America. Roderic Camp wrote that the political elite in Mexico came from fewer than two dozen, especially Ivy League, universities. And Jeffrey Puryear’s account of the rise of think tanks in Chile also draws a straight line towards a small number of institutions in the United States and Europe (although this is a much more diverse landscape than the one presented by Camp). What is significant here is that when donors say that they do not do politics they are either lying or refuse to see the obvious truth: research is political.

We should be paying more attention to political foundations and the work they have done to develop political systems -including research capacity.

Andrew Rich, Donald Abelson and Kent Weaver have written about the role of ideology in gatekeeping key policy spaces such as Congressional and Presidential Commissions in the United States. What gets you in, then, is your affiliation; what you do with it is another matter.

Rafael traces the development of Bolivian politics and pay particular attention to the shift from class-based politics to identity-politics. Think tanks are not excluded from this and their roles have changed accordingly.

He concludes that:

Think tanks in Bolivia have thus had influence on politics and policy-making since 1985, but only due to their connections with political parties, social movements and the executive. Therefore thinks tanks, though often subordinate to political interests, can be classified as principal actors in the Bolivian political process.

The paper is written in English and in an ODI Working Paper style and so, I am sure Rafael won’t mind me saying this, quite a lot of the personal learning process is lost in translation. We are currently working on a new version in Spanish for a book on the political economy of research uptake in Latin America funded by the Evidence based Policy in Development Network. Read this, but if you can read Spanish, look out for it when it comes out later in the year.