Orazio Bellettini on the future of think tanks in Latin America

26 August 2013

Last July in Rio de Janeiro, the Fundacion Getulio Vargas of Brazil and the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program of the University of Philadelphia brought together think tanks from 13 Latin American countries to analyse, among other issues, the impact of think tanks on the region’s development.

I had the honour to moderate a panel which found that during the past few decades Latin American think tanks have fulfilled at least two key roles:

  1. Creation of evidence and analysis: Think tanks have created evidence and analysis that has made an important impact on the path that many Latin American societies have taken. In his book Thinking Politics, Puryear (1994) concluded that the role of these institutions was key in the strategy to win the plebiscite that ended the dictatorship in Chile. Based on analysis done by Chilean think tanks, intellectuals proposed opposition politicians to postpone the fight for free elections, and instead promote a plebiscite where citizens would feel less fear in expressing their opinion. This analysis and the cooperation between opposition leaders resulted in winning the plebiscite that made possible the return to democracy at the end of the 1980s.
  2. Design and monitoring of public policy: Several reforms, both first generation (macroeconomic politics to control inflation) and second generation (educational reforms) implemented in several Latin American countries counted with the active participation of several think tanks, some of them linked to political parties that governed the State during the reform processes. After analysing the role of technical knowledge in the design and implementation of structural adjustment policies, Camou (1997) concluded that organisations with large technical capacity became “transversal parties” which accompanied governments of different ideological tendencies, making public reforms viable in the 1990s.

Old and new roles with renewed strategies

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the contributions made by think tanks to the development of the region, it is important to rethink their role in order to be in sync with the enormous changes seen in the region in the last decades:

  • From the tank to the network of knowledge productionThink tanks have been characterised by knowledge production centered on experts. However, the increasing complexity of problems requires going from the “ivory tower” model to the creation of networks of knowledge production where, in addition to specialists, those individuals who live with these problems and who possess tacit knowledge on their causes can participate. This means that they must pass from being a tank to become catalyzers of networks integrated by several nodes (i.e. universities, citizen groups, public institutions) that produce knowledge collaboratively to face common challenges.
  • From a “top-down” to a bottom-up” strategy of impact on public policyTraditionally, public policy centres have focused on decision-makers, what we could call a “top-down” strategy to influence on public policy. Given the consolidation of democracy and the expectations (and capacities) of citizens to participate in the decision-making process, it is crucial to engage actors without formal authority to influence policies from the “bottom-up”. That is why public policy centres can play an important role, promoting public deliberations where several societal actors can participate, informed by the evidence and analysis generated by these institutions.
  • From research on the present to the creation of visions for the futureUsually think tanks have focused on analysing the challenges of the present and the policies that could face them. Given the speed with which social and economic changes occur, it is fundamental to develop what UNESCO has called the “science of anticipation”, which allows societies to elaborate scenarios on the possible futures and generate ideas and capacities to direct our societies towards the one which is seen as the most desirable.

In Rio de Janeiro the conference concluded that think tanks have played a key role in the development of Latin America and that they could play even more relevant roles if they manage to connect with the new challenges faced by their societies, in order to become catalysts of processes that allow the region to achieve economic, political and social development.