How does the context affect think tanks?

3 July 2013
SERIES Think tanks and their context 8 items

The Think Tank Initiative has been (and is) very interested in finding out what is the relationship between think tanks’ context and their performance and effectiveness. This is a question that has come up twice in the last year: as part of its mid-term evaluation and now in the form of a new project dedicated to this. And it is a question that is asked quite a lot in different fora.

I have been asked to provide some ideas on how to go about addressing this and, in the spirit of this blog, I will do so publicly. Also, because writing helps me to make sense of some of my ideas. And, taking some advice on previous blog posts that have been a bit too long, I’ll split my opinions in three posts:

  1. The first, this one, will set the stage and address some challenges that such research question presents.
  2. The second post will provide a set/list of possible hypotheses and research questions.
  3. And the last one will report on an event on think tanks in China that I attended over the weekend and where the answers to these questions were pretty much covered. Certainly for China.

I should also note that if you would like to add your own views about this question: what is the relationship between think tanks and their context? then feel free to do so. I am sure that the TTI’s research project, as well as this blog, will benefit from your insights and experience.

There are several ‘temptations’ that one has to avoid when delving into this subject.

Democracy is not always a cause

First, one must try to avoid the very easy assumption that democracy leads to more and stronger think tanks. I would accept that democracy contributes to a more sustainable think tank community (with fewer risks and dangers for think tanks and think tankers) but not that it is the cause of think tanks’ existence. If it were, then there would be no think tanks in ChinaVietnam or Chile. And let’s be honest, how many countries can really call themselves a ‘democracy’?

So democracy can be a driver but its absence isn’t a reason to assume an absence of think tanks.

Economic liberalisation is not always a cause

A second temptation to avoid is to argue that economic liberalisation is critical factor. It can help, just like democracy, but it is not necessary. In fact, in both cases, the existence of think tanks can lead to both political and economic liberalisation.

I would argue, then, that any efforts to try to link good governance indicators to the number or some measure of think tanks’ health are, well, a slight waste of time. But donors (and international development consultants and researchers), specially the ones that have to work across the world like clear-cut rules and frameworks.

No clear-cut relation 

In general, what we should be avoiding is the temptation to search for and claim clear-cut relations that will apply to all think tanks everywhere. This is impossible for at least two reasons:

  1. Think tanks are different. I will not go as far as saying that all think tanks are different but it is safe to say that there are important differences between think tanks in the same context. Take Zambia, for example: one can find a think tank that is a ‘project’ for the Ministry of Finance, one that is a research centre for the Catholic Church, another that is the secretariat of a network of NGOs, and a more traditional political think tank, all within a 10 minutes drive from each other. Or Peru where there are university based think tanks, independent think tanks, associations of researchers, etc. The effect that the context has on them will be different. One cannot always be sure.
  2. Think tanks are a break from the rules: Most of the time, when someone sets up a think tank, he or she is taking a big risk. Their promoters are breaking the rules. They are trying to find innovative solutions to persistent problems by going outside of the usual channels and processes: providing an alternative to government’s research, challenging political parties, freeing up scholar’s time by removing teaching responsibilities, etc. In other words, think tanks are rowing against the current. I think that most think tank directors in developing countries would agree that their organisation’s continuous existence is a matter of wonder.

It is easy to look for grand regional or national traditions of think tanks and rational explanations for why a think tank is like it is. But in my experience, functions and forms of think tanks all over the world are more the consequence of a myriad of interconnected and historical factors and decisions that cannot be explained by simple rules. But if the rules are too complicated, well, what would be the point? Maybe it would be better to focus on finding out what ‘may affect’ think tanks and help the think tanks themselves to understand how those factors work and affect them.

Be careful when choosing the dependent variables

A fourth temptation to avoid has to do with the manner in which the impact of the context is assessed. In the current TTI project, the consultants will be looking for contextual explanations to think tanks’ performance and effectiveness. But these two words, performance and effectiveness, ought to be treated with care.  Three reasons for this:

  1. A think tank can be effective (influential, for example) and still be a governance and management mess. I know too many of them.
  2. A think tank can be an example of governance and management excellent and be terribly ineffective. Influence, after all, is to a great extend a matter of chance.
  3. Effectiveness in particular needs to be unpacked. As a participant in the First Chinese Think Tanks Symposium said: “Influence is a sub-project. What really matters is that think tanks tell the truth. [Influence can come later]”. Think tanks fulfill a number of functions and therefore have several (often simultaneous) ways of affecting (positively and negatively) their societies. To be robust and worthwhile, any analysis of a think tank’s effectiveness needs to consider them all; but this would be, unfortunately, simply too expensive and therefore a questionable use of think tanks’ already limited resources.

Next post will put forward a series of hypotheses and research questions to guide any further research on the subject.