Premio PODER to the Peruvian Think Tank of the Year 2013: some lessons

24 October 2013

The first ever Peruvian think tank award has been celebrated in Lima. A large crowd of thinktankers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, politicians, academics, and journalists showed up at the Westin Hotel to celebrate and reward the good work of Peruvian think tanks. Rather than an announcement post, I hope to offer a reflection (maybe too early) about the process and what we have learned for next year and for other awards.

The Winners

I should, however, mention the winners (using their names in English so you get a sense of who they are):

The judges

Claudio Herzka, an economist and founder of a few think tanks in Peru; Cesar Zevallos Heudebert, a businessman and TEDster; Carmen Rosa Graham, member of several boards of large Peruvian corporations; Naomi Mapstone, the FT’s correspondent for Peru; Fabiola Leon-Velarde, the dean of the Universidad Cayetano Heredia; and Mirko Lauer, a Peruvian journalist.

The (longish) process

The process has a bit of a history. Of course the idea is not new. I first came across it in the UK via Prospect Magazine’s Think Tank Award. In my view the model provides a great alternative to global or regional rankings (which are by now widely seen as, to it bluntly, useless) and offers think tanks the opportunity to meet each other and reach out to audiences that they would not normally reach. For think tanks in developing countries this last point is very important. Most are used to, let’s face it, sometimes too-close-for-comfort relations with their, mostly foreign, funders; but have few or no links to domestic philanthropists and the private sector and society more generally. If I had a dollar every time I had to explain what a think tank is to people who are at the top of their industries and even in government…

This kind of award also allows people ‘in the know’ to judge the relevance and impact of think tanks without having to delve into the impossible world of metrics. Relevance and influence are, after all, a matter of perception and circumstance. Who better than very well informed people to, as a group, judge this?

The award, too, is not absolute. It does not suggest that there is one that is better in all respects or that it is objectively better. It is the one that the judges, who show their faces and who, for a number of reasons that are made public, thought was that did best this time around. Next time, who knows?

In other words, I liked the idea. And therefore blogged about it a bit and shared the idea with whoever wanted to listen. I am, of course, not the only one who has liked the idea. PASOS in Europe has a similar award. Alfredo Azula from PASOS shared the following with me:

The awards recognize outstanding think-tanks in young and aspiring democracies in Europe and Central Asia, and publicize the importance of what they do.

“The PASOS Think-Tank Awards commend the work and achievements of organizations that demonstrate outstanding work to promote the values and goals of our organization in promoting and protecting democracy, human rights and open society values – including the rule of law, good governance, and economic and social development,” said Jeff Lovitt, Executive Director of PASOS.

Awards are given in two categories: Achievement of the Year and Best Policy Publication of the Year.

The awards are open to PASOS Members and Associate Members. The members and PASOS Board members can submit nominations, including self-nominations in the case of Members and Associate Members, for any or all categories.

Each winner of an Award receives an Award certificate, coverage of the winning initiative on the PASOS website/social media channels, and a special award seal of excellence to be used on the winner’s own website and print/electronic publications.

The winners are selected by a three-member jury of leading experts from the international think-tank world and experienced policymakers with a knowledge of the policy challenges facing young and aspiring democracies in Europe and Central Asia. The jurors this year are:

  • Bohdan Krawchenko, Director General, University of Central Asia
  • Kalman Mizsei, Chair, Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma (MTM), Open Society Foundations
  • Gabriela Svárovská (Dlouhá), Member of the Board, European Partnership for Democracy, former Director of Human Rights and Transition Policy Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Czech Republic

For more information about the awards, including full application guidelines, download the complete call for applications.

And here is a video about the 2010 awards program, the year the program was launched.

Then I decided to take it to Peru, where I am from, and started looking for a local publication who would play the role Prospect played in the UK. The first publication I went to was immediately interested but faced a few challenges. Namely, its own editorial line made it hard to manage the potential fall-out from awarding the prize to a think tank that held a dramatically different ideology. Nonetheless, their interest showed that the idea had traction in Peru. Then came PODER.

PODER is a magazine that, like Prospect, covers politics, economics, society, etc. It is active in political debate. It is also relatively new and seeking to expand its readership and therefore was willing to take chances.

PODER was interested from the beginning and both its Director (David Rivera) and Editor (Carolina de Andrea) were instrumental in getting the idea off the ground and seeing it through untill the end.

Then came the task of finding the right panel of judges. We had several conversations about this. We discussed each candidate trying to find a balance between men and women, not making it too ‘young’ or too ‘old’, not too domestic in focus, include academia, the private sector, civil society and even the public sector, etc. We worried that we had few backups in case our preferred list declined but to our happy surprise they all accepted.

The eagerness with which the judges agreed to be part of this effort was, in my view, the strongest indicator that we were on the right track. We did not have to explain much. They heard the idea, liked it, and went for it. Again, they took a risk.

The choice of judges was important. Right from the start we wanted to make sure that this was a Peruvian award. No foreign funders were included in the panel.

We decided to launch the award with categories that described think tanks’ key functions (research and communications) as well as encouraged the participation of think tanks outside of Lima (outside the usual suspects). We think that next time around the categories will also include thematic awards -like Prospect’s.

To develop the terms of reference and the application form we benefited from the informal support of Prospect Magazine. Adam Bowie, in particular, has been a great help to us throughout the process. Not only did he offer sound advice but he also gave us the confidence that we sometimes needed to keep going. The Peruvian press and others have made a big deal about the award being inspired by and supported by Prospect. This kind of endorsement, even if informal, is very useful.

We made some mistakes with the terms of reference and the application forms, though. I take the blame. I think that they need to be clearer and the categories better defined. My mistake was partly due to the fact that I felt I had to give more detail as this was the first time we did anything like this in Peru. But too much detail made some of the categories a bit confusing. Also, we decided the categories before the judges came along. I think that next year, the judges will have a say.

Another lessons emerging from this phase is that dissemination of the award needs to be properly planned. We failed to reach out to think tanks outside of Lima. I have started booking trips for a roadshow across Peru for next year!

In any case, we received quite a few applications. Some we had not expected and were happy to see; some were not think tanks; and some think tanks we hoped would have applied didn’t. Still the group that made it to the judging phase was rather good and gave the judges quite a lot of work.

Judging was fun. The judges read all the material provided and came to the meeting with strong arguments about their own preferences. They discussed each category and in many cases changed their minds. It was a very interesting and enjoyable friday morning.

Finally, we had a list of winners -and finalists. The judges didn’t just choose one think tank but also discussed why others didn’t quite make it.

The ceremony

The ceremony deserves a separate subsection. The award has not been cash funded by anyone. Everyone who participated in its organisation volunteered his or her time. Finding a venue was hard but Westin stroke a deal with PODER and offered the venue and catering; PODER’s partners La Mula filmed and webstreamed the event; and the judges and think tanks themselves helped to disseminate it. We even got a post on the Financial Times.

We followed Prospect’s format as much as possible with a few ‘Peruvian’ considerations and all went rather smoothly. The winners were announced and all, including those who didn’t win, celebrated.

The Minister for the Environment, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, offered a keynote speech that was perfect for the occasion: 4 fallacies of research in Peru (Peru is not over-studied, not all researchers are leftists, researchers don’t just sit in offices staring at their computers, and researchers can communicate -and must).

The winners received a simple glass trophy and a digital badge to include in their social media accounts and websites. But above all, I think, as Norma Correa put it on the night: recognition from civil society. And this is quite something; even more valuable than a dollop of cash.

More pictures from the ceremony: here.

Some additional lessons and acknowledgements

We’ve learned a few things already -and there will be more lessons emerging soon, I am sure.

One thing is that money would not have made this particular process easier or better. The judges participated because they believe that visualising and celebrating the good work of think tanks is important for the country. PODER felt that the relationship between journalism and think tanks was so inter-linked that not supporting this would be a mistake. The think tanks that applied did so because they saw a benefit not just for themselves but for the think tank community as a whole. There is nothing money would have allowed us to do better (any failings are our own). But money could have cheapened the meaning and worth of the award.

Having said that, a sponsor could help in the future if we wanted to expand the categories, reach out to new think tanks (especially outside Lima), keep think tanks on the agenda throughout the year, etc. And much of this can be done ‘in kind’. But I honestly believe that the sponsor should be local, from the private sector or a local foundation and play no role in the process and judging. And no funds should be dedicated to the think tanks themselves or the judges (sorry).

We could have had a longer period for the application process and worked harder in getting the news out. But on the other hand delaying the launch of the first award could have meant that it would have never gotten off the ground. One can be easily distracted and when we are dealing with think tanks and politics there are distractions at every corner.

PODER’s leadership and the commitment of the judges were instrumental. This is not a project of some foreign donor or consultancy. There is no logframe or contract. No theory of change was necessary. PODER and the judges liked an idea, shared a vision, and works hard at it. And in the end we may have a new Peruvian institution in the making.

Prospect’s support, although informal, was invaluable. We would not have been able to do it without their help. Having them as mentors as we move forward will be important.

Finally, the think tanks that applied (including those who did not qualify as think tanks but still applied) deserve a special thank you. They took a big chance by sending in their applications. The world of think tanks and policy research is riddled with uncertainly and suspicion. Few think tanks want to expose themselves to be judged the way these organisations did. Few want to step out of their comfort zones and often prefer to remain among those who already know them -missing out on new exiting opportunities but safe in their own ways. But we recognise that each organisation deals with these challenges in their own ways and in their own time.

By applying, and even more so by winning, these think tanks have put themselves on the spotlight. Carmen Rosa Graham said so when awarding IPE the one to watch award: “we will be watching you and will expect to see you here next year as contenders for the think tank of the year award”. CIUP, too, will have to top themselves if they want to be considered again. What got them the award this year (namely the quality of their research and important improvements on their research capacity) won’t impress the judges next year; they will be looking for more.

So having a critical mass of think tanks in Peru who felt confident enough to take a risk and accept the challenge and in doing so sought to contribute to their community as a whole was crucial for the success (at least this is how it feels right now) of the awards.