Interview with Wilson Jimenez, executive director of Fundación ARU in Bolivia

[This interview was undertaken by Natalie Echenique in November 2019 and the article written by Cristina Ramos and Andrea Baertl.]

Between 2019 and 2020, Wilson Jiménez was the executive director of Fundación ARU, a Bolivian organisation established in 2007 that produces research aimed at informing public policies in the country. ARU is focused on producing high quality research and in 2010 was one of the recipients of funding from the Think Tank Initiative. In this interview, Wilson discusses his trajectory in the organisation, what it meant for them to receive funding from the Think Tank Initiative and the challenges he currently faces as director.

Natalie Echenique: Please tell us about the history of Fundación Aru and your experience in it.

Wilson Jiménez: The Foundation was established in 2007. But previously we had been thinking about founding it for a couple of years due to the need to create a research centre with relevant, high-quality research projects that could inform public policy in the areas where we were most skilled. We started working on this idea a couple of years before it was established, while I was still in another institution that was also a think tank. It was the Unit for the Analysis of Economic and Social Policies, which is part of the state and where we carried out research on social issues that helped the Bolivian government make decisions.

Fundación ARU then was created in 2007 and was mainly funded through projects. An idea began to take shape to maintain a research agenda linked to the areas of employment, social protection and poverty. In the beginning, we were three founders and from different levels we tried to attract a portfolio of projects.

In 2010 or 2011 we received support from IDRC through the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), which gave us funds to develop ourselves institutionally. This allowed us to have a place to do research, with a budget for the administrative part and a group, still small, of researchers who could have their own research agenda.

Based on the support that IDRC gave us, we were able to have working groups both in monitoring and evaluation and in research. We were able to perform better in our own research, and also by participating in other projects that linked us in partnerships with other institutions and even public sector entities.

Finally, after a second phase of IDRC, we entered a process of consolidation. But without IDRC support now we are still looking for a business model that is appropriate for this new period that we call post-TTI.

NE: What could you tell us about your professional career?

WJ: Regarding my training, I was fortunate to be in the National Institute of Statistics and in the Social Policy Analysis Unit, which was a specialised entity of national statistics and which helped me have a deep understanding the public policy cycle. Working at those two institutions defined my career as a director.

NE: And speaking of your position as executive director, how did you become director of the institution?

This process was a bit accidental. Being a researcher already within Fundación ARU, several things happened. The director at the time, Paúl Villarreal, who was also a founder, resigned. We had to face the transition process from ARU with funding to a model without funding and, basically, I took the reins knowing that we had to move beyond that long period during which we had had support and that we should look for a sustainable business model. The challenge was not easy, and we are still looking for that model.

So, it was a little because I believed in the institution and a little because I wanted to move it forwards. Basically, we are going from having IDRC support to working only with projects, so the management had to change dramatically. This has affected our finances, the agendas, the administration, the management of resources and how we position ourselves towards public policy. It was my own decision to continue, because I wanted to back the institution, and because the director had resigned at that time and I wanted to take over.

NE: What are your roles and functions as a director?

WJ: My main concern is how to keep the organisation afloat: to make it work with the same salary levels, administrative expenses, project costs. When we stopped having financial support from IDRC we had to quickly switch to a project-based scheme, make adjustments and balance our finances. That took me a long time and, for that reason, I also had a lot of interaction with the administrative staff and perhaps we neglected the research part a bit. We reached agreements with OXFAM, UNICEF, the World Bank. This gave us some relief, but they were medium-term projects that lasted a few months, and we had to work very hard to complete these small agreements.

NE: What functions do you think take the longest?

WJ: In the first months when I assumed the leadership, we still had a lot of products left over that had to be delivered to the funders. Most of the time was dedicated to balancing the budget and to finishing those consultancy products.

Once we finalised the consulting products and the agreements, we also had to get more sustainable financing. From my perspective, this has not been possible yet because we revolved around consulting products and very short-term products that allowed us to function. Medium-term agreements do not allow us to fund the operation of the office or comfortable administrative expenses, so the only funds that allow us to have some flexibility now is the consultancies. Consulting has the advantage of being a more flexible product, but it has the disadvantage of diverting us from our agendas. Our skills around programme evaluation have helped us to win many of these projects but we put aside our own agendas.

NE: What were the main personal challenges you face in your role as director?

WJ: On a personal level, I think it is trying to sustain this foundation and give it a projection so that it continues to be a centre of thought (think tank). That is difficult while one is carrying out consultancies. Strategically, my personal challenge, is to reposition ourselves as an institution that carries out more research and can be an example.

NE: In terms of leadership styles and skills, what do you think you bring to the organisation? How do you characterise your leadership style as director?

WJ: I believe that my contribution has been to have a perspective both from the inside and from the outside on how to manage this institution. I have worked for institutions that are tremendously important in political decisions in the country. What I am trying to contribute the most here is to establish a close link between research and public policy.

When I worked in public institutions, I saw that research is very scarce but highly demanded. Decision-makers require quick, high-quality information and studies, and I know that they could greatly benefit from the outputs that ARU provides if we were more linked to public policy. This is not so simple, since ARU is now like a private sector institution and must follow mechanisms that are not necessarily achieved when one is within the state.

My leadership style, I would say, is a bit about having a complete look of public management, firmly believing that we are part of a cycle of policies, whether doing some research, generating knowledge, interacting, communicating, generating links with other entities or with people that are all linked to policymaking.

NE: Would you like to add something more about your experience in these months as executive director?

WJ: Right now, this transition is particularly difficult for the organisation but it is a tremendous opportunity to diversify in various ways. In the academic field, it is an opportunity to capitalise on everything that we have already been done and give it a clear orientation to communicate the research and generate ideas of ​​how to transform policymaking. It would be very interesting to systematically collect and transmit what has been done in these 12 years to position the institution at a better national and international level.

Financially, we have established many links. We have acquired knowledge of how to access certain types of funding. You have to take time to apply, to write research proposals, proposals for management models and sell the institution not as a small entity, but as an important entity in a country that requires research and greater knowledge of areas in which we have very specific skills.