At the recent OTT conference I was asked to offer some reflections on how my organisation, Kivu International, works with developing world think tanks.
First a word about our model. Kivu International specialises in supporting organisations such as think tanks that are looking to influence and improve policy in their own countries. Our starting point is that for policy change to be real it can’t be imposed from outside, but must be developed, debated and owned locally.
We see our role as helping think tanks try and bring about the change they want to see – not by telling them what to do but by supporting them, through providing tailored advice and mentoring, to get better at things that will help them have more impact. It is a genuine partnership, where our partners use their local insights and expertise, and we draw on our extensive experience of think tanks and policy-making, to collectively contribute to policy debate.
Here are some reflections based on our approach of working with developing country think tanks over the last 5 years:
- Credibility is the key to building trust: for a think tank to want to work with you and take you into their confidence they have to trust you, and for that they must believe you are credible. That’s why we place so much emphasis on a “peer-to-peer” approach: our think tank partners appreciate our advice (even when they ignore it) because they know, having worked in think tanks ourselves for years, we have faced many of the same challenges they face.
- Listen and respond: Listen first – understand where the organisation is coming from, what makes it tick, and how it is shaped by the prevailing political and economic context. It’s essential to know what the think tank wants to achieve, what its underlying motivations are, and what it believes are its major challenges. Only then can you provide responsive and tailored advice; only then will you have a sense of what might work and what will fall flat on its face.
- But also challenge them: if your partners trust you, and think you’re credible, they will want you to draw on your experience to challenge them. The best advice usually comes from asking the right questions.
- Learning is a two-way process: we continually learn from our partners and build on the ideas and expertise of those we work with. It’s our partners who understand how change happens (and doesn’t happen) in their countries. We draw on these insights to work with them to develop relevant research agendas and effective influencing strategies.
- Start with the low hanging fruit: it’s important that the think tank can see some early signs of progress. Start with areas where it is possible to make some quick wins. It doesn’t take much to ensure that reports are press released and disseminated on social media; equally you can improve the presentation of a report with a basic executive summary.
- But improving core policy influencing functions often takes longer: improving press releases is one thing, improving the capacity of a think tank to develop robust policy quite another. In our experience, it takes time to really strengthen the policy development and policy influencing functions.
- Become part of the team: our approach is resource-intensive. We “embed” ourselves in partner organisations for sustained periods, as we recognise it takes to time to achieve real change. In Rwanda, we worked with a partner on and off for 18 months; we have been working in Zambia with a range of think tanks now for over 3 years. Being embedded in partner organisation is also key to building strong and trusting relationships: you become part of the team.
- Capacity building needs to be applied: we’ve all attended workshops where you can barely remember the key points the next day. In our experience the best capacity building comes from on-the-job learning, where we use projects our partners are working on to exemplify key lessons.
- Experiment with different things: developing country contexts vary enormously. This means you have to try out different things. For instance, in closed political systems (e.g. Rwanda) you need to experiment with different models of ‘private’ advocacy, in more open systems (e.g. Zambia) it is possible to undertake public advocacy.
- Know when to give up: it won’t always be possible to strengthen an organisation – no matter what you try or however much time you invest. Sometimes the context is too difficult or sometimes it just not possible to sufficiently change the culture of an organisation.
Kivu has published a new paper with the RSA looking at the role of think tanks in achieving policy change.