Five challenges think tanks face to influence international policy

29 August 2013

[Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of posts that reflects on the processes of introducing research by southern think tanks into the international agenda. The reflections are based on the experience of preparing research for the debate on the post-2015 development goals]

Think tanks in the global south have accumulated relevant experience and knowledge that could be significant for the international debates on such diverse issues as development, trade or the environment. Nonetheless, few are the centres that can take their research to such international venues like the WTO or the UN. What are some of the challenges think tanks face to reach these audiences?

Of course, many of the centres in the global south do not see this as a main focus of their work since national policy processes are complex and challenging already. As a result, knowledge prepared by international organizations or think tanks based in the north, tends to dominate the international debate. A fresh perspective based on the academic and practical knowledge of politics and policies in the developing countries could enrich the international debate.

But, what are some of the challenges think tanks face to accomplish this goal?

1. Focusing on the issue instead of the country

Most of the think tanks in the global south have focused their attention of their specific country’s context. By doing so, many have become the go-to source for that nation’s specificities. On the down side, however, an overemphasis on each country may outshine the issues broader complexities. This does not mean that the researchers are less knowledgeable or that they have less experience in the issue, but that they emphasised the country over the issue.

In the international debates however, each country is just one case of a wider phenomenon where other 200 countries with also interesting and complex contexts. As a result, a discourse, a presentation or a paper that is aimed at the international level should change the emphasis: the issue over the country. Additionally, if information can be gathered about a cohort of countries, this is also beneficial.  The objective is to be able to have a discussion that, grounded in specific realities can tall to a wider public.       

2. Discussing a topic, not advocating for it.  

I have noticed that the line between think tanks and advocacy organizations blur in the international context since both try to push for a specific topic. For example, an international NGO and an education specialist (from south or north) might make quite similar points on the relevance of education. What is then the value added of think tanks? In the case of the post-2015 development agenda, for example, I would be happy to see researchers from think tanks acknowledging the challenges of achieving the goals they are proposing or the relative irrelevance of certain themes – in comparison to other that might be more crucial. Think tanks would benefit from being critical and discussing the issues in a holistic manner and with the policy constraints in mind instead of advocating for one specific issues. Others are already doing that.

3.       Accessing the right venues

Getting to the right places and discussing issues with the right people is not a minor challenge. The United Nations system, for instance, is composed of different arms such as the Secretary General’s Office, the inter-governmental processes, and the specialized agencies such as UNDP or UNICEF. Although these different actors are involved in the decision process, it is unrealistic to think that they are all equally influential in the final outcome of international policy. Furthermore, there are struggles for power and presence among these different actors within the system, which are relevant to explain the dynamics of the processes. Think tanks in the global south, being based outside of New York and Geneva, have a logistical restrain to access such complex systems. Unlike working in each country’s capital, they are far away from the politics of the international policy.

4.       Coordinating with others

As a result of the complexities described above, it is unlikely a think tank in the global south can approach the endeavour of influencing international policy alone. Currently, coordinating among various think tanks to carry out the job can be the only way to face the challenge. However, the diverse nature of think tanks, the regional diversity and the competing interests among them are a challenge for coordination. In fact, there are few instances of international collaboration among think tanks to begin with. Coordinating is costly, requires leadership, time, commitment and mostly trust.  These are all aspects of joint ventures that think tanks could develop among each other more. The Southern Voice on Post-MDG is on initiative focusing on this goal.

5.       Confronting a different policy scenario

When influencing policy at the national level, think tanks are likely to be interacting, at the same time, with the actors that will be deciding on policy, the ones implementing it and even the ones evaluating them. In the international debates, however, the policy cycle has its specificities. Most of the work that think tanks can carry out is to inform the debate prior the decision-making process that is likely to involve inter-governmental processes. That is an additional complexity of the process. The actual implementation of international policy, on the other hand, many times go back to the capital of each nation, meaning that turning into practice any idea is further away. Navigating these settings wisely would require a better understanding of how the policy cycle works and what type of research and knowledge is required or missing.