IDRC has been keeping ideas alive -literally

4 June 2012

IDRC has made a rather interesting claim: Canadian support to researchers in the 1970s and 1980s Chile kept ideas alive, quite literally.

Few scholars were more under threat than social scientists, whose probing work often challenged the regimes themselves. About 3,000 social scientists left Chile after the 1973 coup. In 1980, more than 500 professors were fired from Chilean universities in a single semester.

IDRC responded by approving a special program of grants to research centres and individual researchers in Chile. Support also went to researchers in Argentina and Uruguay, which were in similar turmoil. The goal: preserve the spirit and skills of independent inquiry against determined and entrenched military dictatorships.

Of course IDRC was not alone in this. Other funders played an important role too. And most important of all, the academics that IDRC and others supported were there to be supported. Since the 1950s, the Chilean government had invested quite heavily in its social sciences, founding and funding entirely new careers and setting up several new academic departments and research centres across its universities.

Chile, by the time Pinochet came to power, had the best academia in Latin America.

An excellent account of all this is provided by Jeffrey Puryear in his must read book: Thinking Politics: intellectuals and democracy in Chile. In his book he argues that the most important contribution that think tanks made to Chilean politics was not intellectual but psychological. Through their meetings and events they helped to develop the spaces and values necessary for democracy. This, more than any specify policy change (impact in donor-speak), is think tanks’ added value to Chilean society.