Independence, dependency, autonomy… is it all about the money?

1 June 2011
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 15 items

‘XYZ is an independent think tank….’ We have all read this before. Some of us have written and talk about it when describing the think tanks we work (or worked) for. And in the last three months think tanks all over the world have said this to me -as a matter of fact. But what do we really mean by it?

I am often faced with reviews and comments from donors worried that the think tanks they are funding are too dependent on core donor funding and that they should be looking for alternative sources. Do they imply that they would then be independent of funding worries? But how would this be possible?

Some international donors suggest that think tanks should be able to leverage funds from alternative sources and hence encourage them to develop their capacities to win projects. But, according to many directors I have talked to, this is not independence. This consultancy way of working makes them entirely dependent on what funders what to fund: i.e. they can only research what they are allowed to research. This is not independence.

Some think tanks claim to be independent because they let the evidence speak for its self. The do not necessary tell their clients what they wanted to hear. So they hide behind the quality of the research (well, some can hide) and search for the ideal of objective credibility. But research quality is no guarantee of credibility. Credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Republicans trust the Heritage Foundation more than they trust Brookings -regardless of Brookings objectively verifiable research quality. And so in the eyes of Republicans and many conservatives, Brookings is a liberal tool.

Perception -whether we want to accept it or not- is important and therefore matters. Ken Livingston, the former Mayor of London, once asked me, after he’d given a speech at ODI on Latin America (there is a great story here but that will be for another time): “So is ODI DFID’s think tanks?” No, not really, we are an independent organisation. “But how much of your budget comes from DFID?” About 70%. “Then you are DFID’s think tank.”

If the influence of international donors is palpable among international development think tanks (based in the north) then the influence on think tanks in many developing countries is absolute.

Another alternative for think tanks in developing counties then is reducing the dependency on some donors and increasing the dependency on other sources: domestic public or private funds. Public funds may be seen as a problem by many -but not if the money is awarded by public competition or through some kind of endowment. And in some cases, as I have found in Indonesia, procurement policy prevents non-profits from applying for consultancies from the public sector -so even this door is closed. Private funds, from corporations or individuals, are equally sensitive for many think tanks as their non-partisan image may be affected. How can they claim to be independent if they are taking money from corporations? But more important still is that in many developing countries, the private sector is still not that interested in funding research -certainly not research that does not pick sides when it comes to private or partisan interests, or ideological positions (if these even exist). And to make matters worse, the tax system does not provide any incentives for donations in the first place.

In any case, if they were lucky to receive them, it is not who gives you the money but how you get it. If the funds come with a contract -including a logframe, pre-appooved questions, branding conditions, etc.- then it would be safe to say that the think tank’s capacity to make its own choices is curtailed. It has limited autonomy, then. But if the funds come with no strings attached, does it matter who provides them? Take the money and run.

Another strategy is to look for various sources of funding -even among a single set of actors (i.e. foreign donors or the private sector or the public sector). Lots of funders can ensure that if one drops out the work of the organisation will not be seriously affected. However, if one contributes with more than 20 or 30% then it would have significant power over what the organisation does and how it does it. It may not ask for much, but the think tank would be silly not to pay attention to its interests and cater for them. And if this funder was to leave, the think tank would be in serious trouble.

For a medium to large northern based think tank like ODI, 20% of the budget can account for 3 large programmes (with about 10 researchers in each); or the cost of running its communications and accounting departments. For a smaller organisation it can account for half its central services.

Then maybe independence then come from the capacity to deal with sudden changes in the funders’ interests without breaking a sweat? This could be done by having sufficient reserves to keep working even if the funders leave or a business model that allows the organisation to shrink in size when things are tough and grow rather quickly when things change for the best. Employment contracts and incentives to staff are crucial in these cases.

But building up reserves is no easy matter. In Zambia donors often pay against receipts -not allowing organisations to charge any overheads. This means that at the end of the year all the organisation has received has been spent and no profit is left to invest in its capacity to innovate, develop new skills, hire new staff, etc. And in other countries -I think that in Ecuador’s NGO policy under debate- profits are not allowed and so any savings left in the non-for-profit need to be returned or spent.

In Indonesia think tanks (like all non-for-profits) have to pay income tax and VAT but since donors won’t pay for this, taxes end up eating up their reserves.

Another option then is to consider developing alternative income generating activities or even parallel businesses: publishing houses, events organisers, renting extra space (if you have it), training, consultancy arms, market and political surveys and polling, etc. This is possible for some but a huge gamble too -and it demands different skills and a serious investment. Endowment would help.

Often independence is equated with having no political affiliation. I disagree. Independence has to do with the organisation’s capacity to chose its own path. So if the think tank wishes to support a particular ideological position or to affiliate itself (formally or informally) with a political party or even an individual then I think this is an illustration of independence; rather than dependence.

But of course we tend to think of think tanks as organisations that have been set up to be a-political (or is it politically naive?) by some technocratic greats who appointed the staff: the reality is that most think tanks are made up of people with similar ideological biases and political agendas (which may or may not be partisan) -and it is more likely that the director appointed the board that the other way around.

And this affiliation or bias is likely to make it easier for the think tank to tap into the holy grail of long term core funding or endowment. Of course all the core funding of the world will do the organisation no good if it has poor management and no sense in using it -but nobody can deny that it can help when it comes to supporting an organisation’s independence.

Needless to say, no endowment comes without any strings attached to it. Individuals do not just hand out their fortunes as if they were buying a pack of gum. They endow organisations that will pursue or uphold certain principles or values, that will stride towards certain goals, and that will undertake some specific types of activities or follow particular courses of action. The question for think tanks, I think, is whether they set out those values and principles -and endowments follow; or whether it is the funder who has the ‘first’ and last word.

The idea of independence as non-affiliation is damaging for think tanks in developing countries. It leads them to think that the only way of achieving it is to let the research speak for itself avoid any close relationships with political or economic powers, and this can, in some cases, stop them from exploring new ways of fulfilling their missions. Striking the right balance will not be easy -and in some contexts may be well beyond the capacity of the think tank itself- but not trying is not a sign of independence; on the contrary, it suggests that the think tank has its hands tied to one single path.

This idea is in part fuelled by donors’ fear of being political -I find it risible when donors say that they don’t do politics but then go ahead to influence decisions that change welfare systems, reallocate resources, and seek to empower civil society to oppose the government. This fear, at least formally, leads them to forget that in their own countries think tanks are not a-political. The organisations they tend to work with, the international development think tanks they fund, look a-political because they deal with marginal politics (the aid budget is a tiny bit of the national budget and few people care much about it). But the think tanks in developing countries are anything but a-political (even if they do not all have a political agenda). Their research and recommendations deal with mainstream politics (large chunks f the national budget and policies that affect lots of people). They are more like the political think tanks in the donors’ countries.

This sanitised version of think tanks does not help anyone. And it is, in my view, contributing to the death (because it was once there) of political debate. When I asked a few NGOs (and think tanks) in Zambia if there were any other civil society organisations that they would “just not be able to work with because you believe in different things -you have different ideological beliefs”, the answer was a resounding, No. They’d work with anyone. The only opposition is the government.

International donors love it when all civil society organisations come together -and see it as a sign of progress. I see it as a sign of danger: no political debate within civil society is a sign of a society that is not thinking, not used to develop arguments, to debate them and to adapt their own.

But this is not the point of this blog.

Let’s conclude, for the time being, that independence comes from the power of the organisation (and its members) to chose their own path. But it can never be total. There is only relative independence. And finding the right balance has to be one of the most difficult things a think tank director (and staff) need to achieve. It would help if rather than assuming it is so, their donors (all) had a more open conversation about all that implies.