Language and Audience: Common challenges demand common solutions

26 October 2015
SERIES Thinking about think tanks in the South Caucasus 7 items

So far, in the series Thinking about think tanks in the South Caucasus, thinktankers working in the region have reflected on the issues challenging their countries’ think tank sector. In many ways, some fundamental problems lie at the heart of the specific problems, and I think they can more or less be summed up as problems regarding:

  1. Language and audience;
  2. Quality of research;
  3. Funding; and
  4. Transparency.

This post takes a look at one of these challenges – language and audience – and considers some things that might nudge the region’s think tanks forward.

Language and audience

Language, and specifically the demand for English outputs from donors, limits the size of the audience for research in the region. Zaur Shiriyev has described how the use of English in Azerbaijan in the 90s (and presumably to this day to a large extent) limited the public’s access to research, and Jenny Patruyanreflected on the English-centric nature of think tank websites in Armenia. These are definitely different phenomena, but language is still the underlying problem, and both authors’ issue with language comes from the fact that only an elite or a foreign audience can access the research produced in or for Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Notably, funding was cited as one of the reasons for the English language outputs and donors might be able to address this problem by requiring publications in both languages (and of course, funding their translation and/or editing).

When it comes to audiences, I don’t think any of the contributors to this series have bemoaned think tanks’ efforts to reach elites so much as highlighted that they should consider broadening the reach of their research rather than targeting elites alone. To me at least, expanding to a broader audience seems like a good idea maybe not for all organisations, but for many.

To achieve this, first everything has to be in an accessible language, but just as importantly it should be in a form that someone will actually consume – only the most dedicated reader will take the time to go through a 50 page policy paper.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need policy papers anymore, but rather that think tanks here should try to pair their longer and more demanding outputs with simpler and more accessible ones. Infographics and even products think tanks wouldn’t normally consider producing, like games, should be options that are on the table. Some progress has been made on the digestibility front and Jumpstart Georgia’s work provides strong examples for other organisations in the region. +

Think Tank Review for the South Caucasus

Something that would not only help with the language/audience problem, but also probably contribute to developing research quality would be the development of something resembling Think Tank Review. Although the original was spurred on by the need to get policy makers to actually read reports, the organization, in practice, also spreads, archives, and reviews think tanks’ work.

For the South Caucasus, there would need to be translation into local languages (and potentially Russian) on top of TTR’s usual work, but language aside, it could improve quality by letting researchers know their work could be reviewed. As internet access is prevalent throughout the region, and most 18-55 year olds here know how to use the internet, something like TTR could bridge the elite to general public gap. Notably, a regional site would help this divided region stay better informed about what’s going on with their neighbours, and could serve as a platform for discussing the larger issues facing the South Caucasus as a region rather than as individual countries. Moreover, policy success could be shared and reflected upon.

Of course, these are just a few ideas, which might make dents in the problems described so far in this series. Have other thoughts? Let’s have a conversation in the comments section below.