Learning from 2020: being global by engaging locally

7 January 2021

2020 has been a difficult year. We have all had to deal with personal and professional challenges. We have all been affected – some more than others – by the pandemic and the effects of the economic crisis that followed. In some parts of the world political crises have ended a year that we all want to see behind us.

For many of us who work and live globally, 2020 has been a year of relearning and rebuilding our connections to the communities in which we live and the work we do. For me, engaging more locally is helping me to find a new way to be global. 

Working and living globally

OTT is a global initiative. We support this claim by pointing out that our associates and consultants are based across the world: Argentina, Australia, Ecuador, France, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, Tunisia, the UK and the US, and possibly more depending on the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Our advisory board is made up of experts from China, Egypt, Peru, the UK and the US.

Recognising that being ‘global’ is about more than having colleagues based all over the world, we also point to the diversity of  our associates’ and consultants’ socio-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They bring different perspectives to bear when addressing any challenge or opportunity we are faced with. 

But even this doesn’t seem enough. Any organisation with a diverse enough team, based in London or Washington DC, could claim the same. Increasingly, organisations in our field are hiring globally – and I expect they will continue to do so.

2020 has also left an impression on my relationship with the place I call home.

I have been living and working globally for the last couple of decades. For a significant part of my professional career, my home, whether London or Lima, was a stop-over between projects working for foundations, think tanks or governments across the world. 

I have developed strong connections to thinktankers in Indonesia, Kenya, Tunisia, Serbia, Switzerland and so on. I have come to follow the work of think tanks in Argentina, the US, the UK and Zambia. I have sought and developed partnerships with organisations in Germany, India, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and the US. I am a council member of the Royal Society of Arts. My news apps of choice are The Guardian or the BBC. You get the picture.

When the first cases of COVID -19 were being reported I was in Geneva delivering our annual School for Thinktankers. I discussed it over dinner at a friend’s house in London a few days later. Had we been spared by COVID-19, work would have taken me to Mexico and Berlin before the end of March. 

Connecting locally, before and after the pandemic

In between all this travel I developed connections with the city I live in. A short cycle ride from my home to Universidad del Pacífico; desk space at the university; an annual think tank award to celebrate research with impact in Peru; an annual Evidence Week across Latin America; a string of small projects to support local organisations and the Peruvian Government in its efforts to improve how it generates, communicates and uses evidence; and direct support to policy entrepreneurs sold on the challenge of creating new think tanks.

The pandemic had a sudden effect on these connections.

Like many, I was driven into my home office. During the first few weeks of the lockdown I felt a real disconnect from my city. My focus was on projects that had to be delivered elsewhere, which meant I could have been anywhere. 

As time went by, however, we witnessed the impact the pandemic and the subsequent economic, social and political crises had on our communities, in particular on the most vulnerable. It was no longer possible to imagine that I could be anywhere, working away from my laptop and concerned about the evidence-informed challenges of governments, foundations or think tanks in unspecified places. 

I do not expect to get on a plane any time soon. Meetings in London or Berlin will have to wait – probably until 2022.

This is alright. 2020 has helped to refocus my attention on these hitherto disconnected efforts to engage locally.

Engaging locally to connect globally

This year has given us the chance to work on fantastically challenging and interesting new projects – with equally interesting clients. 

We published a series of studies on narrative change. We launched the first State of the Sector report, which presents an unprecedented snapshot of think tanks globally. We organised three online conferences addressing  issues as critical as the impact of technology on politics, society and think tanks, ethics and integrity and the impact of the pandemic on think tank funders. The School for Thinktankers is going online and it has sold out!

We worked with leading players in the field of evidence-informed policymaking. OTT is evaluating IDRC’s strategic objective to achieve research results at scale. This has offered us a chance to explore how scaling the impact of research happens, drawing on experiences from across the world. This is an emerging field and we are excited to be able to contribute to its development. 

Throughout 2020 we have explored the field of public engagement for the Wellcome Trust. This is part of an effort to develop a global initiative to generate and communicate evidence about what works in public engagement. And we have recently started to explore how to bring together the worlds of impact investing and think tanks by studying common agendas in Latin America and Africa.

We are also evaluating the work of the Hewlett Foundation in Mexico over the last two decades as well as its global transparency, participation and accountability strategy. Both have offered the opportunity to explore new approaches to evaluating change, learn about how foundations work and, most interestingly, communicating evaluation findings.

New work with the Gates Foundation has involved developing an innovative new service to support evidence-informed decision making for global foundations.

And as much as I love to get involved in these projects, what I seem to care for most of all is the outcome of a much smaller project in Peru, building a scientific advisory system.

The project is funded by the Newton Fund, via the British Council, and aims to support the national science council (CONCYTEC) to design and develop a scientific advisory system for Peru. That’s right: Peru does not have a systematic way to incorporate scientific knowledge into its policymaking.  We have considered lessons from across the world and designed a foundational model based on the needs and demands of policymakers themselves.

Through delivering this project I have come to learn a great deal about the complex evidence-based policy ecosystem in Peru, the needs and demands of policymakers at the national and sub-national levels, and the specific challenges and opportunities involved in any effort to create a new institution. I expected the project to be difficult – we are going to face multiple political and operational roadblocks. But my motivation has not dwindled.

This is part of a larger, more personal effort. In 2019 I committed my time to support the development of a new public research fund earmarked for the social sciences in Peru. This involved close collaboration with local think tanks, universities and CONCYTEC through a series of working group sessions, a conference and pro-active drafting of a pilot fund. Through 2019 and 2020 I supported the launch of Redes, a new Peruvian think tank, and worked on the design of a new think tank on migration policy with local researchers.

I mentioned earlier the annual think tank award. This award was created eight years ago in partnership with a local publication and the Latin American Evidence Week, an annual regional festival of events dedicated to promote the generation, communication and use of evidence in policymaking, which is now delivered in partnership with the Peruvian Ministry for Development and several other public and private organisations.

In 2020, I also started writing a digital column in a national news media’s platform.

None of this is profitable. It has been somewhat operationally disconnected to the core of our work at OTT, often dependent on the time I volunteer. 

Why do I do this? 

I will leave altruistic reasons aside. There are at least two selfish reasons I recognise: partly because it satisfied a sense of duty I have towards my community, and partly because it brings me closer to the results of my work.

And both make me feel good.

It is the same feeling I get at the end of our face-to-face annual conferences when I ask participants to share their experience of the event and we head out for a final drink before we all return home – wherever that is. It is the feeling of being part of a community that appreciates the contribution you make to it.

I cannot find or make an obvious link between this and my main reflection for 2020 but I want to argue that a truly global initiative has to be local.  

We must be connected to our multiple localities. I am based in Lima, in Latin America. Ajoy is based in London. Annapoorna is based in Bangalore. Dena in Cape Town. Marcela is in Quito. And so on.

How are we engaging with our local communities? What are we doing locally? What are we learning from them? In other words, what is our connection to our place?

So far, my engagement with Peru has been unplanned, mostly privately driven and supported and rather disconnected. It has not been part of an OTT-wide strategy to promote similar engagement in the cities and countries where we are all based. 

I know Marcela is an active participant in the Ecuadorian research community promoting greater participation of women in science. Annapoorna is the director of a local think tank. And others also have a role in their communities. We all engage locally at some level. But would a more purposive and greater involvement locally boost our motivation to work globally? 

There is also a practical reason for this: greater local involvement can boost our capacity to work globally

If we have a stronger grounding to our communities we will be better at working globally. For example, I can contribute to a discussion about the challenges of scaling research findings with references to the challenges that policymakers in Peru face in scaling the results of successful pilots. My engagement with Peru’s research community offers multiple opportunities to learn about the effect that donor strategies and funding practices have at the local level.  

Similarly, our global work, as much as we hope it will, can only lead to limited impact, which is hard to track and monitor. But by bringing our collective global experience to the local level we may be able to make a difference: more broadly and deeply.  

Therefore, in 2021, I wish to encourage all of us to explore how to engage with our communities and take on more local work. This could be project work or our own initiatives to encourage greater understanding, debate and development of the field we work in. It could also involve supporting existing initiatives that could benefit from what we have to offer.

We will do our best to support this new way of being global.