Lessons from the Peruvian think tank awards

14 September 2015

[Editor’s note: This post is based on the interviews conducted to members of the jury of 2015’s edition of the Peruvian Premio PODER that have been published on the award’s website.]

The Premio PODER al think tank del año(PODER’s Think Tanks of the Year Awards) is an initiative that seeks to celebrate and improve the visibility of the contributions made by Peruvian think tanks. This includes institutions that, coming from different backgrounds such as academia, the public sector, civil society or the private sector, seek to inform public policy through robust and innovative research. It is inspired by Prospect’s Think Tank of the Year Awards.

It rewards think tanks’ capacity to put forward practical and insightful proposals that can be applied by Government, political parties, the private sector or civil society in general, as well as their ability to generate spaces of dialogue and debate, train future policymakers and political actors, and hold those in power to account.

The award praises the most original, influential and rigorous work regarding the most important and urgent challenges the country faces as well as the most efficient ways to tackle them.

During the last two months we have been interviewing members of the judging panel (the interviews, in Spanish, can be found on the award’s website) to discuss the importance of this award and the role think tanks play in Peru.

Applications were received until monday the 7th. Over the next few weeks, they will be discussing who will be the winners of the 8 categories. The awards ceremony will be held on the 29th October in Lima.

The award is also a great opportunity to learn more about think tank -particularly in Peru. The entire effort, the application and the judging process provide rich insights into a number of key questions we like to ask at On Think Tanks: what is a think tank? how do they seek to influence policy? how to assess their influence? what evidence matters? what is and how to promote research quality? Etcetera.

First of all, what is a Peruvian think tank?

At On Think Tanks we have discussed widely what think tanks are -or, more appropriately, what think tanks may be. In this post we will incorporate the views of the members of the panel.

According to them, think tanks are defined by their vocation to influence the public agenda. Both Mirko Lauer, political analyst and leading journalist, and Carolina Trivelli, former Minister for Development and Social Inclusion, defined think tanks as research centres clearly orientated towards influencing public policy. This implies that the boundaries of what a think tanks is may remain somewhat vague and can include different types of organisations.

Claudio Herzka, economist and international consultant, followed this definition, but expanded it to include the role think tanks play in training new policymakers, as it is common for thinktankers in Peru to alternate their work with public service.

César Zevallos, entrepreneur and TEDster, pointed out that think tanks have a special role in our society, as they are made up of individuals dedicated to thinking about society and its problems.

On the point of differentiating between a think tank and a consultancy firm, an issue that comes up a few times in the interviews, Carolina Trivelli suggested that it is a matter a balance: it is alright for think tank to do consultancy work, as long as it does not end up being their main activity or that it distracts them from their missions.

But even them it appears that the issue is rather subjective and it greatly depends on how the organisations, and the individuals in them, see themselves. In the end, the think tanks are defined by their people. And they use a great number of vehicles (in every shape and form possible) to fulfil their missions.

The importance of think tanks for Peru

According to Carolina Trivelli, a think tank’s work is to help improve the quality, pertinence and results of public spending. They act as a counterweight to State institutions because they work on the same issues, but from a distance. As private institutions and given their expertise and their exposure to international debates, they can have a fresh take on things.

Ramiro Portocarrero, lawyer, mentioned that this ‘fresh take’ also comes from the special relationship they have with the market economy, because they remain somewhat independent from it, as they usually depend on international funding (although consultancies can be quite an important source of income). This creates a sort of distance that allows them to present a more critical point of view.

For Claudio Herzka, this independence from the market economy gives think tanks the opportunity to act as strongholds to maintain a robust research sector. However, this independence can be seen also as dependence on foreign donorsThink tank funding is a challenge for think tanks across the world. In Peru, most think tanks depend on foreign funding, as local donors are scarce. This means that mobilising new domestics funds is among the main challenges think tanks in Peru face toda – it will not be reliable forever. Because of this, there is a need to encourage local funders to help keep the work of think tanks sustainable.

In this sense, the work of think tanks can be divided into two. First, as Fernando Zavala, former Minister of economy and Finance, mentioned: proposing new ideas that State institutions have not yet developed -their exposure to international debates is a key element here. Second, their work can also provide an institutional support to existing social policies because in countries like Peru, where institutions (both formal and informal) tend to be fragile and the public sector suffers from high turnover of officials, think tanks with a solid trajectory can provide consistency and sustainability to the general context of social policy.

The contribution of the award

While the  term ‘think tank’ is relatively new to Peru think tanks are more common than one would think. Many institutions such as research centres, consultancy firms or independent NGOs that may qualify as think tanks have traditionally used other labels to describe themselves. This may create a challenge for the award but it also offers a unique opportunity. Both Claudio Herzka and Mirko Lauer stated that today there isn’t any other institution in Peru that collates such organisations into one single category. In that sense, the award gives them a common space in which to recognise each other and expand their influence. It also presents an opportunity to them, as Fabiola León-Velarde, Rector of Universidad Cayetano Heredia, pointed out, to question and revise their organisation, to see weather they can qualify as think tanks.

By creating this space and by giving them visibility, the award promotes the work of think tanks and helps them to position themselves in the public policy sphere, according to César Zevallos. Fernando Zavala expanded this point by saying that this visibility also enables the general public to know what think tanks are and what kind of work they do.

It is also a great learning opportunity that has already offered important insights into the world of think tanks –and that provides inspiration for On Think Tanks.

What remains to be done?

The Peruvian think tank scene has yet to develop. According to Mirko Lauer, diversification is still an issue. Most prominent think tanks in Peru are quite traditional, as Carolina Trivelli also pointed out, in the sense that they represent several interests at the same time. There is still a need for a think tank that clearly target and inform specific sectors.

In general, there is need for more think tanks to emerge from outside the capital, Lima, and to tackle issues that remain understudied.

If you are interested in finding out who won, visit the awards site after the 29th October or follow @premiopoder