November 30, 2011


Ideas for the next Head of the Think Tank Initiative (and other think tank funds), if I may

In a few months, a new Head of the Think Tank Initiative will take on the responsibility of leading a new phase of a programme (see the second annual report) that has the potential of not only changing the fortunes of its grantees but also the way in which international development (and domestic) funders support think tanks all over other world.

In view of this, as well as an upcoming launch of its second annual report, I offer some ideas (unsolicited, but hopefully welcomed) to consider. I hope these are also relevant and useful to other think tank funds and initiatives that are directly and/or indirectly supporting think tanks and policy research centres across the developing world.

Clearly, I do not expect that these recommendations will be implemented right away -and at the same time I do not wish to imply that these are terribly original and that they have not been considered already. But I think it would be good for all of us to keep them in mind and maybe debate them a bit more in the coming months. In all cases, the hoped-for outcome is that the initiative’s work may be taken on by others and its effects (the positive ones) will be greatly strengthened, multiplied, and sustained in the long-run.

Be a thought leader

This is not a new sector but it is certainly not a very popular one. In the world of developing country think tanks there are not many minds and voices out there. This position, I believe, offers an enviable opportunity to contribute to the effort to develop the sector and our own understanding of it. As time goes by, any opportunity found for writing and publishing could certainly add value to our work, think tanks, and their funding. Goran Buldioski‘s blog, for example, is a perfect example what I’d hope to see more of across all think tank and research funders. Another one is Jeffrey Puryear whose account of think tanks in Chile does not cease to provide new insights into the sector.

Leverage domestic funds

Unless national and even local governments, businesses, and philanthropists take on the responsibility of funding research and think tanks in their own countries and communities, initiatives like the TTI will never see the end to their work. Many of the organisations funded by the TTI have been funded by various IDRC programmes in the past. In several cases, their funding helped to set them up many decades ago. None of these think tanks (not even the most established) have been able to ‘graduate’ from foreign funding and I would expect that the same fate awaits the younger ones.

There are serious problems with relying on international funds for research. First, researchers end up paying more attention to what donors are interested in than what their countries need. Second, they are quick to adopt discourses and processes that often lack relevance for contexts. And finally, to list only three, they become dependent on political (and funding) cycles on which they have no influence what so ever.

The TTI provides an opportunity to break this dependence that has not existed before. This time around there is a coalition of influential and interested international donors (IDRC, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) of the Netherlands). There are significant funds available to back their commitment (CAD113 million). The think tanks supported constitute an important community (12 in East Africa, 12 in Latin America, 11 in West Africa, and 16 in South Asia). And the media and governments have paid attention -it is not just think tanks who have noticed what is going on.

I think that the TTI, ideally working with other think tank and research funders, could use these sources of power and influence that it has so successfully developed during its first two/three years of existence, to target not just think tanks but also potential domestic funders. How to do this? I’ve thought of some ideas but I would expect that it would be necessary to think about which ones may be more appropriate for each think tank fund and its partners -and of course this would depend on each country.

  • Channel future funds (first some and progressively more) through national research councils or trust funds, set up independently from the government or any other policy actors, and governed by independent national boards to ensure autonomy. TTI funds could serve as a gravitational force for the funds of other international and national research funders who will feel greatly reassured by their presence. Better coordinated, funds would be more effectively allocated.
  • This model could be used to nudge national governments into topping up or matching the funding provided by international funders and, slowly, shift the balance in favour of domestic funds. Not so long ago the Canadian government engaged in a discussion with the Peruvian government to do just that -but the Peruvian government did not step-up to the challenge (if only there had been a bit more pressure?).
  • Mobilise global and northern philanthropists to convince their peers. Why not invite Jim Balsillie (I have a feeling he would do it) from Research in Motion and who set up CIGI to a series of dinners and seminars with wanna-be philanthropists in developing countries? Or host a show-and-tell event in Canada, Washington, or London to bring them together with other philanthropists. There are fantastic stories from developing countries, too –the Gateway House, for example, is a new Indian think tank funded by Indians. In China the government is investing heavily on think tanks. Why not work with them to convince their wealthy peers in Asia, Africa and Latin America to do the same? Better yet, use the Soros, the Gates, and the Hewletts to help set up new foundations in developing countries. Why not make them TTI funders, too? This would make it a truly global initiative.

The leveraging of funds should also consider how to mobilise other research funders in some countries where the focus should really be elsewhere: on universities and the development of human capital.

Unleash the power of your data

The TTI, like other such funds and initiatives that support think tanks and research centres, has and continues to gather invaluable information about think tanks from all around the world. This data offers unparalleled opportunities for research and learning -something I know is on the initiative’s agenda. Inevitably, some will have to be used with care as much of the information may be private but, where possible, I would encourage the new Head to allocate resources to make it public and easily available.

I expect that soon, think tank scholars, think tanks themselves, students, and the media will be using it and developing our common understanding on these organisations. Of course, just as the data is public so should any products that are based on it. Some ideas:

  • A competition could be established to encourage new studies; maybe the opportunity to present them at annual meetings or other international conferences.
  • A collaboration with an academic journal could be set up to publish a special issue of studies based on the data.
  • Incentivise TTI grantees’ researchers to undertake research on think tanks (using their own data as well as that of their peers) -see ‘amplify the voices of thinking directors’, below.

How great would it be if the data published by the TTI could be strengthened by data from other initiatives (e.g. the Think Tank Fund or the go to think tank index or DFID’s Research Programme Consortia, etc.)? Independently, some think tanks may want to add their own information to the database and thus support the development of a useable (and useful) knowledge base on the subject. So far all we have are lists and directories.

Fund new think tanks and start-ups (take risks on new big ideas)

Up until now, the TTI has funded organisations with a history (not always too long) and, hopefully, an established reputation. I think that, while necessary, this could have the potential undesired effect of limiting intellectual debate in some of the grantee countries. If all follow the same safe approach to funding, by funding the strongest organisations the donors could be closing the space of new ideas coming out of other centres. After all, good ideas are not the property of large and old think tanks; anyone can have them.

There is also the issue that there being so few think tanks in some countries, the ones that exist have developed a sort of monopoly on the production of research. And control the prices and quality of knowledge.

TTI could fund start-ups around new big (which is not the same as expensive) ideas that need that little extra help to develop -in a context of more domestic funding this could lead to new sustainable think tanks and programmes. Start-ups do not need to be expensive -this is common the response I get to this suggestion, before it is dismissed. A couple of friends and I have been working to set up a forestry think tank in Peru and working hard to keep its set-up costs very low. How? First, we have decided to focus the work of the think tank on analysis and synthesis before moving on to more long-term research -this means starting with a small team and a small research budget. Second, we propose to set it up first as a programme within an existing research centre so that we can avoid the usual costs involved with setting up a new organisation (e.g. renting office space, hiring staff, sorting out legal issues, etc.). To make sure that the think tank is autonomous from the start we are putting together an independent board and will call it ‘centre’ rather than programme or project (sounds silly, but I think this matters). Third, we have developed a draft plan that explicitly calls for a reduction on any foreign funding and increase in funding from local sources (in the form of grants) -in fact, right from the beginning the initiative has the support of the private sector.

If the think tank proves to be successful (and makes a contribution to the sector) then we would seek funds (local) to set it up as an independent body. But only if. Like any start-up there is always an element of risk.

Some of the recommendations suggested under ‘leveraging domestic funds’ apply to this idea but a focus needs to be given to funding innovations or existing initiatives such as JCTR’s the Basic Needs Basket or CIPPEC’s Agenda Presidencial. This is as close to a win-win situation as one can get: the funds would be rewarding organisations that have already invested their own money and effort. Another way is to include newer and smaller organisations in the next round of grants ; which to some degree has happened already.

Don’t be afraid to drop a few think tanks along the way

There is no reason why a think tank must exist if it does not fulfil its functions -and funders should not fund if they are not happy with what’s produced. If the think tanks (and their funders) set out realistic objectives there is no reason why the TTI grantees should not be able to meet them. All too often, I believe, donors (and other northern ‘intermediaries’) are afraid to walk away from a southern organisation. There is a mistaken sense of responsibility for them.

In the end, this simply closes the space for new initiatives, rewards poor practice, and creates dependence.

And taking risks (see the previous point) involves accepting some losses: but nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

Bypass Aid

Not entirely, of course, but I would encourage the new Head of the TTI to look for inspiration and allies among northern and southern non-aid think tanks. These are the organisations that deal, on a daily basis, with domestic issues (economics, trade, agriculture, health, education, etc.) in developed countries and on non-aid issues (security, foreign policy, right and left-wing politics, etc.) in developing countries.

I think that the TTI grantees have more to learn from them than from northern international development think tanks, NGOs and development consultancies. International development organisations tend to work in the world of ‘marginal’ politics (aid, after all, represents a negligible portion of donor country national budgets); on the other hand, domestic ones, like developing country think tanks, deal with ‘mainstream’ politics.

IPAR Rwanda, one of the TTI grantees, has a very interesting collaboration with IPPR, in the UK, going on. I would encourage more of these links -but also between think tanks in different ‘southern’ regions, such as the Think Tank Fund initiative to link Eastern European think tanks with their peers in Latin America and South East Asia.

Encourage and amplify the voices of your thinking Directors and thinktankers

This is not to dismiss the important work undertaken by all others, but many think tank directors (for instance people like Orazio Belettinni and Simon Maxwell, both of whom have contributed to this blog) have taken up the challenge of managing think tanks and chosen a critical thinking route, too. Rather than ‘getting on with it’ they have decided to turn their grants and jobs into an opportunity to think about their organisations and their roles. Their experience, research, and the lessons they are sharing with other directly relevant to other think tanks. The same is true for other staff (researchers or communicators) in think tanks.

The TTI could encourage more of this, possibly by:

  • Providing small bits of additional funding for studies on think tanks by think tanks.
  • Setting-up a simple blog for the initiative or an online space; or encouraging them to write for other spaces (like this one?)
  • Pairing-up their most promising candidates (and I stress: promising ones -those who make the effort) with peers in more developed (or more successful -if this is possible to determine) think tanks.

Expand the community

As the think tanks settled into the initiative and their new grants, the TTI could, slowly (and I stress, slowly -and carefully), invite non-TTI grantees to its meetings and events (regional and global).

  • Maybe, they could be included in some of the evaluations (could they be considered as counterfactual?) and research commissioned by the TTI.
  • They could be invited to regional learning events or trainings such as the recent Latin American think tanks meeting held in Lima.
  • Future learning events could be organised in coordination with other initiatives, thus maximising opportunities for networking and sharing.

Core support need not be only interpreted as ‘cash’. In-kind knowledge contributions can be equally valuable for think tanks and for think tank directors. A good idea can create as much ‘space for manoeuvre‘ as funding.


There are other more micro-level ideas that could be considered relating to capacity development, communications, and links to non-TTI think tanks. But those presented here, I hope, will provide some inspiration for a successful and meaningful intervention.

And, of course, I hope these ideas and recommendations are equally useful and relevant for other initiatives.

More information on the Head of the Think Tank Initiative post and how to apply.

Best of luck.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal