Jessica Espey on helping think tanks engage in international policy debates

30 August 2013

[Editor’s note:  This is the third of a series of posts that reflects on the processes of introducing research by southern think tanks into the international agenda. The reflections are based on the current debate on the post-2015 development goals. It was written by Jessica Espey,  Adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia,  Co-Chair of the High Level Panel on the Post-2-15 Development Agenda.] 

This blog responds to that posted by Andrea Ordónez regarding challenges that southern think tanks face when engaging in international policy debates, specifically those seeking to engage in the post-2015 negotiation. 

  1. Illustrate the argument: As noted in Andrea’s post, the context specificity of national think tanks can be a challenge, but it also presents an opportunity. International dialogues are considerably deepened and enriched by robust national examples of policy interventions and approaches, particularly when illuminating particular themes, for example successful measures for tackling social and economic inequalities; equitable approaches to service delivery; meaningful community participation; green growth strategies (particularly competitive green growth approaches in low-income countries); or successful models of economic transformation, including diversification and value addition. These issues have caused lively debates in various post-2015 forums, from the High Level Panel to the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. Writing up these examples in a concise way, linking them to specific themes or ‘hot topics’ and teasing out comparative lessons from across other countries or regions can really help to make such evidence useful and relevant.
  2. Speak to the politics: The post-2015 debate is incredibly political. Countries are fighting for the prioritization of issues aligned to their national interest, for example many Africans are eager for a focus on industrialization, whilst many Latin Americans want to talk about inequality or environmental conservation. Be open and honest about known political tensions and differences in regional and national positions, so that you can offer practical proposals on how to broker compromise.  As think tanks you can avoid the trap of advocacy organizations, pushing particular tactics or issues, by weighing up different approaches and critically evaluating their merits and demerits, for each of the parties involved.
  3. Focus on governments: Knowing how and when to engage can be a challenge, particularly in the post-2015 process which is steeped in layers of UN bureaucracy, but ultimately the post-2015 negotiation will be member state led. Each country will come to the table in early 2015 with a negotiating position and then must be willing to hammer out a compromise, so focus on communicating your research and evidence to capitals, as well as their representation in New York and other regional hubs, like Addis Ababa (where much activity will take place to negotiate the African Common Position).
  4. Keep it brief: Given the amount of research and the number proposals that will be thrown at politicians throughout the post-2015 process, it is important to weigh up evidence and rationalize it. The High Level Panel Secretariat at one point had over 50 goal suggestions – hardly retaining the simplicity of the eight MDGs! Furthermore, politicians and diplomats, stuck in intergovernmental negotiations, have little time to paw over lengthy working papers and treaties on development, so keep outputs concise. The most user-friendly documents should be a max of 4 pages, with recommendations clearly spelt out upfront. When seeking to influence a UN or intergovernmental processes’ outcome document, specific and brief wording suggestions are generally very welcome.
  5. Get involved: There are hundreds of regional and national level events taking place on this agenda every month, presenting an opportunity to showcase views to local, regional and international development practitioners and politicians. In the next few months look out for: