Is everything from the ‘North’ bad for the ‘South’?

8 April 2011

Ajoy Datta’s recent blog post asks if developing country think tanks may ever be able to escape their US heritage. He provides some very interesting insights into the research being undertaken by RAPID on think tanks (that I kick started while I was working there) now being led by him. As my comment to his post suggests, I think that the real story coming out of this research is that think tank studies and support interventions should not attempt to remove politics from the equation. The work done by RAPID clearly shows this, and Ajoy presents an excellent case for and many examples to support it.

However, this post (but mostly the post’s title) got me thinking about something that we have been discussing -and that has been at the core of some of the comments that my blog on think tank definitions received.

This line of argument is partly driven by an underlying narrative in the international development community (and that like everything has some aspects of truth): that the North wants to impose its ideas on the South -and force it to accept them even when they may not be relevant. In other words, that context matters so much that everything is relative and everywhere is unique.

But, is research on and the experience of think tanks from developed countries so irrelevant to the study and practice of think tanks elsewhere? This is the line we had been following at ODI -and that I have tentatively put forward in some posts in this blog. In fact a significant part of my critique of James McGann’s index is based on this irrelevance.

I am not so sure any more. For example, German and US policy environments are not the same -they are not even similar- and as a consequence think tanks in both countries are therefore quite different -and so is the think tank community. However, Josef Braml’s work provides an excellent example of how these differences can be used to unearth a great deal of detail on how different contexts have affected the development of different think tank communities and think tanks. He uses the same set of criteria to describe how think tanks in the US and Germany have developed different funding structures, are focused on different audiences, show a different balance between research, consulting and advocacy, have different affiliation arrangements, perceive risk in entirely different ways, their staff follow different career paths, etc. These differences do not make the comparison less interesting and useful; rather they provide a great deal of space for a richer discussion of the nature of think tanks in Germany.

Not only that, it also shows how lessons from the US where the think tank community is more developed have been identified and adapted to the German context.

Think tanks in the US and in Germany (and elsewhere in many developed nations) -and their funders- have in fact (and whether we like it or not) influenced the formation of think tanks in developing countries: in Chile the think tanks that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s were heavily influenced by the support of US and European Foundations and close ties to ‘Northern’ think tanks. In China, independent private think tanks led by international players such as Justin Lin have clear origins in the West. In African, the Ghana based African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) is in fact registered in the US -and by all assessments it has nothing to envy its US counterparts in organisational structure and capacity.

Many think tanks have boards made up of academics and think tankers from developed countries. Have a look at Grupo FARO’s board, for example: it includes Merilee Grindle from Harvard and Andres Mejia from IDS. CEPA’s advisors are equally international –most educated abroad. As advisors to the think tanks they would naturally provide the management with ideas based on their own organisational experiences and it would be up to the think tanks’ directors and senior management to adapt this advice to the local context. (And having provided FARO with some advice I can say that I have seen that process take place –ask, think about the advice, interpret, adapt, prioritise, implement, etc.)

The foundation of think tanks in developing countries is also likely to have been driven by policy entrepreneurs attempting to emulate think tanks in the US and in Europe -inspired and encouraged by their work. In China, the role of ‘returnees’ is critical to the formation of new think tanks –and, according to Cheng Li’s assessment, the Chinese government is actively seeking the development of a US-style revolving door type of think tank. Some think tanks even have foreign leaders.

Even in RAPID we studied think tanks from developed countries like Japan alongside developing countries like Indonesia.

As soon as the Think Tank Initiative announced its winners I (and I am sure others working in developed country think tanks) received a great deal of emails and calls from think tanks in Latin America and Africa asking about visits to ODI and other UK based organisations. And a few have asked me for more specific advice and to share ODI’s experience in adopting a number of internal systems and strategies. In 2009, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) organised a visit to the UK to meet and talk to researchers, think tanks and policymakers. And other UK based think tanks like IPPR are now working with and mentoring African based think tanks.

So FARO, VASS and others must think that the lessons learned by ODI, IDS, IPPR, Brookings, etc. are relevant to them because otherwise they would not bother visiting them.  The suggestion that they are irrelevant would be akin to suggesting that a doctor trained in Canada had nothing to teach doctors elsewhere; that an engineer from the UK or Japan could not build a bridge in Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. Anatomy and the laws of physics are the same in the north and the south. Practicing medicine and engineering may be different -but never so different that peers would find it impossible to understand each other.

Now having said that, I also believe that lessons learned in Latin America for instance may be more immediately relevant to African think tanks, and that think tank directors from Eastern Europe and East and South East Asia may find that they have quite a lot more in common that they initially thought.  So this is not a defense of the ‘North’. In fact, southern doctors probably have a lot to teach their technology dependent colleagues of the north.

The problem is not with where the advice comes from but rather with who gives and receives it.

Advice and lessons are there to be considered, not imposed or copied without a thought. Even good advice requires an intelligent and critical audience to make good use of it: those asking for it are expected to decide how to use it. My colleagues at RAPID and CIPPEC, with whom we have worked in delivering support to think tanks across the world, would agree with me in that their favourite advisory projects are the ones where their recommendations have been challenged and they have been forced redo their workshops or rush back to the hotel to consult via skype with the rest of the team and search of answers to really good questions.

Our research and this blog can only provide what I hope is accurate and useful information, measured advice and encourage a critical and insightful deliberation of options and ways forward.

So I think that, properly used, the literature on and experience of think tanks in the US are relevant -and they are more so because the literature on think tanks elsewhere is limited.

As think tank researchers we should be focusing on translating good lessons into good practice, but certainly not dismissing them ex-ante because they come from ‘the North’ -wherever that place may be.

What we are doing is (I hate this phrase, but cannot think of any other at this time of night) throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We disagree with the definition of think tanks coming from the US because it tends to exclude a great number of other organisations -university research centres, government research bodies, etc.- that fulfil the same functions in other contexts where the conditions (formal and informal) that have promoted the formation of US-style think tanks do not exist. But this should not prevent us from drawing inspiration and lessons from a rich think tank tradition and an equally rich think tank literature.