Foreign policy think tanks in developing countries

10 July 2012

During the last couple of months we have been compiling a list of think tanks dedicated to foreign policy in developing nations. The idea behind this project was to get a better sense of the kind of topics that command the attention of researchers and policy makers when it comes to these nations’ relations to other countries and their interests in the international political arena. We were interested in this type of think tank in particular because, unlike their peers in the social and economic policy fields, domestic, rather than international, funders commonly fund these. And the search for sustainable and domestic sources of funding for think tanks in developing countries is a key concern for The information that we have gathered from this first attempt at an annotated list of foreign policy think tanks has proven to be quite interesting, not only because of what we have found regarding the kind of topics they dedicate themselves to, but also because it brings up issues we have touched upon in the past, such as the use of social media and the nature of their funding. This post provides an analysis of the former.

One of the findings of the exercise is that foreign policy think tanks in developing nations are mostly focused on regional affairs. They care foremost about what is going on in their backyards, and so the topics they choose to research have to do with regional politics. For example, South Asian think tanks have much to do with security studies, be it traditional security or human security. Pakistani and Indian think tanks in particular deal with these issues, and are also interested in ethnic conflict, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. This is to be expected, as these are also the main concerns of the region. Most Middle Eastern think tanks deal with the Arab–Israeli conflict, particularly those that are of countries directly involved in it. Curiously, they do not seem to focus as much on security studies, when common sense would believe it would be a main point of interest, regarding the volatility of the region.

Latin American foreign policy think tanks dedicate their efforts towards regional cooperation, economic integration, democracy studies, and defense. This is probably the case because there is a current regional integration process going on, UNASUR, and because this region has always been concerned with inserting itself into the international economic system, as well as with democratic stability. Also interesting is that most Latin American think tanks are hosted by universities, which is a good indication that foreign policy is still more of an academic pursuit and that there is, generally, little room for (or interest in) influencing public policy.

We found very few foreign policy think tanks in Africa: our list only includes South Africa. The two think tanks included work on issues such as peacekeeping and conflict management, arms control and disarmament, refugees and internally displaced persons, and economic integration: all relevant topics to African politics today.

Southeast Asian institutions are also mainly interested in national defense, ASEAN membership and impact, and Asia Pacific security. Why so much focus on these issues? There has currently been a significant arms race going on in this part of the world, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog Asia Unbound pointed out in 2010:

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 alone, with Vietnam recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian submarines and jetfighters designed for attacking ships. Other recent buyers have included Malaysia, which recently spent nearly $1 billion on new submarines of its own, and Thailand, which has drawn up its own shopping list of submarines and more advanced jet fighters, while Indonesia and Singapore also have announced recent sizable arms purchases.

Countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are arming up to send a signal to a rising China that they will continue to protect their strategic interests and their claims to energy resources in areas like the South China Sea, the Mekong basin, and other regions. And though China has not deviated from its increasingly aggressive approach to Southeast Asia, these arms figures should give it pause.

Another explanation for why there seem to be so many foreign policy and security focused think tanks in this region is these countries’ developmental state and the regional dynamics that emerged between them. Their developmental status and proximity to each other has caused them to be in constant competition and so their relations with each other, as well as their security, are a main point of concern.

Another fact that called our attention was the high number of foreign policy think tanks in China. These, of course, are all either totally government-funded or have some link to the state. As mentioned in a previous post, Chinese think tanks are expected to conduct research and policy analysis on domestic, regional and global issues, assisting the government in policy formulation. This investment clearly signals that China is looking for a position of leadership in the future and explains the wide variety of topics that its think tanks focus on: new trends in international trade, security, Sino-American relations, regional cooperation, and most telling of all, regional studies. All of the think tanks included in the list had significant departments on most of the regions of the world, which suggests that the Chinese government wants to be well informed far beyond its backyard.

Finally, it appears that foreign policy think tanks go beyond regional interests when their own nations have broader aspirations. The Chinese case is clear, but this can also be said for South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. Mexico´s close ties to the United States may explain academic interest in foreign policy affairs; as for Brazil, it is known that it looks to lead Latin America, particularly through UNASUR. Also, it is safe to say that South Africa is one of the most developed countries of Africa, and so researchers can branch out and dedicate themselves to topics that for the most part dominate African think tanks, like economic development.

In future posts we will explore other aspects of this community of think tanks. If you would like to contribute to the list please get in contact with [email protected] / @onthinktanks, comment this blog, or simply update the list directly on Wikipedia (and in the meantime help make knowledge publi