Four challenges in navigating the Mexican think tank sector

8 February 2024

The Mexican think tank sector faces multifaceted challenges, which range from funding to geographical concentration and threats to democracy. Collaborative efforts, strategic alliances and adaptability are vital in navigating this complex terrain and ensuring the sector’s continued impact. 

In total, 60% of the Latin American think tanks that participated in our 2023 think tank survey believe that the operational context is getting worse. Mexican thinktankers agree. However, it is also a complex tapestry of challenges and opportunities. 

On 1 December, seizing on the presence of the 2023 International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, we presented the Think Tank State of the Sector Report 2023 at an open event. We got different perspectives from think tankers at this event. +

Here are the four main challenges raised:

1. Defining a think tank

Defining what constitutes a think tank can be an elusive task. Panelists discussed the language challenge: “think tank” in English isn’t understood by most Spanish speakers. And a direct translation doesn’t really make sense.

At a previous OTT event, José Luis Chicoma and Héctor Soto Guerrero raised this same challenge and called for think tanks in Latin America to call themselves “civil society organisations that use knowledge to influence policy” or “centres of public policy analysis and research”. 

There was a sense from the panelists, however, that having a clear definition of what constitutes a think tank would be helpful. As t his enables organisations to advocate for the sector, and to collaborate more, addressing some of the underlying tensions and competition for resources that can exist.

2. Fundraising challenges

Out of the 66 Mexican think tanks registered on the Open Think Tank Directory, 74% are registered as non-profit organisations. 14% are university-funded, and 8% as government funded. Just 3% identified as for profit. 

Funding was one of the big challenges signposted for the Latin America and Caribbean analysis of the 2023 Think Tank State of the Sector report.

The speakers offered more nuanced insights, mentioning three specific challenges for fundraising.

Tax reforms  

In 2022, the federal administration initiated tax reforms that had a significant impact on the income of CSOs. 

These reforms resulted in a reduction in income deduction rates. These dropped from 32% to 15%, posing a direct threat to the financial well-being of NGOs by diminishing incentives for charitable donations. 

According to Cemefi, philanthropic funders constituted 21% of the total income of authorised non-profit organisations in 2020. Consequently, there is a pressing need for the implementation of flexible donation schemes and tax incentives designed to encourage private contributions.

The philanthropic sector 

Exacerbated by the underdeveloped state of the philanthropic sector in a middle-income country, the financial strain highlighted the broader challenges associated with securing local funds. 

The speakers emphasised that the philanthropic sector in Mexico faces considerable limitations, considering the country’s size and economic scale. 

According to Michael Layton (2023), Mexico has approximately 300 philanthropic organisations – a stark contrast to the United States, which boasts over 100,000. 

Some speakers elaborated on the impact of international funders withdrawing from the country in recent decades due to changes in priorities. This has left a void because the local philanthropic sector is relatively small; therefore, it is incapable of filling the funding gap left by these international contributors.

Scarcity of government funds  

Since 2019, experts in the philanthropic sector have raised concerns about President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration, which is creating a challenging environment for the growth of CSOs. 

For instance, in 2019, he issued Circular uno, directing the “non-transfer of budgetary resources to any civil society organisation”. This was done with the aim of “ultimately ending intermediation that has led to discretion, opacity, and corruption.” 

As a result, the federal government’s financial support for CSOs was discontinued. The exception to this are the subsidies given to shelters for women who are victims of violence and their children (Alternativas y Capacidades A.C., 2022).

Furthermore, in 2023, the current federal administration endorsed a reform that transformed  the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACyT) into  the National Council for Humanities, Science and Technology (CONAHCyT). 

According to Espinoza Pedraza, the shift in focus is highlighted by the fact that “CONAHCyT’s mandate is centred on the humanities, sciences, and technologies, whereas CONACyT previously had a broader mandate encompassing engineering, agriculture, and medicine.”

With the implementation of this transformation, the budget allocated to CONAHCyT was slashed by 34%, resulting in a significant reduction in funding for research in science and technology. 

Although CSOs could not directly access funds from CONACyT, public research centres and many researchers who collaborated with think tanks could.  This decrease in funding also impacted the work of think tanks that are dedicated to promoting evidence-based research and decision-making.

These three challenges frequently lead think tanks to vie for the same limited resources, generating tensions within the sector. This underscores the imperative to forge alliances, bolster networks and advocate for the expansion of a more robust philanthropic sector in the country.

Ultimately, resource constraints pose challenges for day-to-day operations. However, they also present an additional hurdle for monitoring, evaluation and learning strategies and for sustaining thematic research areas in alignment with strategic plans and organisational growth, rather than solely in response to specific projects. 

Once again, the issue of core funding comes to the forefront.

3. Centralisation

The geographical concentration of think tanks in the capital and big cities emerged as a notable concern. 

Out of the 66 think tanks registered in the OTTD, 85% are based in Mexico City; it was a fair concern when the speakers asked the following: Who and where are the non-usual suspects that promote evidence-informed policy on local spheres outside Mexico City, Guadalajara or Monterrey? 

This centralisation presents challenges for decentralised think tanks, hindering their ability to share work and position themselves within the broader sector. It also hinders their ability to connect with funders and project officers and to improve their business model and fundraising strategies. 

4. Threats to democracy

The fragile state of democracy in Mexico and the increasing personalisation of the federal government adds layers of complexity to the political context. 

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president (2018–present), has publicly neglected to recognize available data on public policy issues, such as security, the economy and health. He claims that research data are biased and “he has other data”, but he has not  presented his sources. 

The active rejection of evidence-based claims and an open call to halt financing for CSOs has posed significant challenges for think tank operations.

The varying approaches of think tanks in their engagement with the government became a focal point of discussion. The collaborative v confrontative dichotomy was explored through case studies such as think tanks participation in evaluating public policy approaches for local governments. 

In this, local governments were depicted as “more collaborative” than the federal government, providing valuable insights into effective engagement strategies.  

The dichotomy between collaborative v confrontative think tanks in Mexico was previously described in OTT Talks, Watchdog think tanks, by Mexican think tanker Liliana Alvarado.