Report Review: Democracy Think Tanks in Action

14 June 2013
SERIES The On Think Tanks review of books 7 items

The Network of Democracy Research Institutes (NDRI) has just launched its latest report, “Democracy Think Tanks in Action: Translating Research into Policy in Young and Emerging Democracies” with a panel that brought together thinktankers from several countries. The report compiles nine country studies written by think tankers themselves.

At the onset of the report, democracy think tanks are described as those

that conduct research and analysis on democracy, democratization, and related topics in comparative government and international affairs.

This is the overarching characteristic of all the organizations that are part of the study but, in practice, they function in very different ways  depending on their context.  Although many cases touch on the usual issues (lack of funding, difficulty to recruit staff, and the apparent challenge of making policy makers “listen” to think tanks) there are interesting takeaways from the cases.

One important aspect in trying to understand the work of think tanks is their context. These cases touch on two important aspects of those contexts: the international space and the relationships among different non-governmental actors. There are also some clues on the relevance of ideas and narratives in the work think tanks carry out.

Watch the video of the event:

International influences and local contexts

The cases of Romania and Turkey portray the relevance of the external pressures to change the internal governance for the countries to participate in NATO and the European Union respectively, and how this can become a favorable factor for think tanks to influence policy.

The challenge for think tanks in those settings is to maintain also its independence from those international bodies that exert pressure on governments. These are two cases where the external pressure is more direct and related to particular goals of external policy.

However, this external pressure might come in more indirect ways.  The case of Georgia explores how the western conception of democracy has become an ideal in the country, which has translated into greater leverage power for ideas that come directly from those countries. In this case, the external influence shifts influencing power from internal think tanks to other international agents:

…the grand idea that inspires the country’s policies today is that Geor­gia should be like the West, and this is especially so in the realm of democracy. Therefore, the West serves as a kind of collective think tank. It is a reservoir of models that should be implemented in Georgia and an ultimate source of pub­lic-policy wisdom.

From a different angle, the Korean case explores how the international context became a niche for EAI, an independent think tank that faced an entrenched knowledge system were the main policy-research relationships were between government agencies and think tanks they founded. They describe their work as “focused on operat­ing outside of the country and drawing international attention to South Korea”.

Throughout the cases we also see very clearly the relevance of think tanks’ ability to understand the context of the third sector, or the non-governmental actors broadly. It is apparent that the ability to link with others is a key aspect of success. In Slovakia, there has been a process of association among these actors that allowed the authors of the case to see themselves as “part of a broader community of analytical cen­ters, think tanks, watchdogs, human rights NGOs, and action-oriented civil-society organizations participating in the democratic modernization of the coun­try.” As a result, improving the democracy in the country is believed to be not the direct outcome of a single organization’s work but of a vibrant network of actors:

The fruits of association have raised the quality of life in Slovakia. NGOs have created, disseminated, and reproduced three specific kinds of wealth in society: cognitive wealth, a wealth of practical experience, and wealth of prosocial pat­terns of behavior.

A different take on this is that proposed in the Lebanese case were the author argues for the need to work together but with distinctive roles instead of trying to do out everything within one institution.  It is interesting to see a case where a think tank has been part of shaping the third sector. This could also be a function for think tanks, which without certain spaces to act and to comment on policies, can have very little influence.

The role of narratives and ideas

In the Ecuadorian case we tried to argue for the need for narratives in order to help the evidence come alive. The Argentinean case, which reported the opinions from legislators revealed the difficulty of conveying those results without a broader narrative that takes into account a clear context of political polarization.

But narratives, it seems, are not only important for the work think tanks convey but for their own spirit, too. Do think tanks see change through a technocratic path or do they follow a more critical attitude toward the way change happens and their role in it? From the Slovakian case:

The prevailing preoccupation with economic agendas, indicators, numbers, and “hard facts” indirectly nurtures a mentality that is less sensitive to con­cepts like solidarity, social cohesion, social bonds, and social capital, which could become worthy thematic orientations for democracy resource centers in Slovakia and beyond.”

From the Lebanese case:

[Our think tank] was born of a conviction that the minds and methods usually found in academia should be brought to bear on issues of public affairs and the public good.

As these two quotes reveal, think tanks see their role not only as one of bringing evidence to the table but also as being able to construct narratives that allow others to find common ground, space for collaboration, and also develop their own critical thinking.

Overview of the cases

  1. Gabriel Salvia of the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (Argentina) shares the experience of the Legislative Barometer, including the challenges of counting with significant participation of all parties in highly polarized settings.
  2. Orazio Bellettini Cedeño and myself on behalf of Grupo FARO (Ecuador), present two cases: one where the think tank was directly involved in a campaign against clientelism and another where a coalition of scientists and activities conveyed an original idea to conserve the rainforest.
  3. Ghia Nodia of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (Georgia) explores the context where the broader non-profit sector works, and suggests for a wider perspective of what is influence in complex settings.
  4. Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Regina Amanfo Tetteh, and Kojo Asante of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development report on two cases from the think tanks: one where they advocated for the Disability Act, and another where they enhanced transparency in electoral processes.
  5. Sami Atallah of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies shares a reflection of the need to separate research from activism based on the think tank’s experience promoting local elections.
  6. Simona Popescu and Adriana Iorche of the Romanian Academic Society reflect on the institution’s accomplishments including the support to pass a freedom of information and transparency bill.
  7. Martin Butora of the Institute for Public Affairs (Slovakia) portrays, through the Institute’s experience, the benefits of a vivid and connected third-sector including civil society organizations, think tanks, advocacy groups and even individual researchers.
  8. Sook Jong-Lee of the East Asia Institute (South Korea), explores the think tank scene in the country and shares the Institute’s strategy to find a niche in a complex and vivid scene. They propose the concept of unofficial diplomacy as part of their role.
  9. Özge Genç of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, delineates the Foundation’s work on judicial and constitutional reforms in the context of Turkey’s process towards being a member of the European Union.