Samar Verma, Senior Program Specialist for the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) in South Asia

11 September 2016

Samar Verma is a Senior Program Specialist of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) for the South Asia Region. As such, he is based at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) office in New Delhi, India. Dr. Verma is an economist and trade specialist who has worked as a Senior Fellow for the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations as well as for Oxfam GB where he served as a Global Head of Economic Justice Program and Senior Policy Advisor. Moreover, he was the founding Executive Director of the Centre for Trade and Development (CENTAD) in Delhi, which focuses on policy research, capacity building and advocacy activities on economic justice, trade, environment and education issues in the region.

This is the first part of an extensive interview with Dr. Verma in which he shares his thoughts on the strengths of the TTI in South Asia, and the challenges the think tank community is currently facing.

Alejandra Villanueva: When did you join the TTI? What is your role in this initiative?

Samar Verma:  The way TTI is organised is that we have a head office in Canada, and then we have the programme officers that are the head of these programmes that are based in four regions of the world where the programme has been brought up. A colleague and I look at the South Asia region. In South Asia we work in five countries, India being of course the largest, but we also work in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. So there are these five countries and we have 14 think tanks all together. It is a 10-year programme. It started in 2009 and it is scheduled to come to an end in 2018. It was rolled out in two phases of five years each. So the first phase was from 2009 to 2014, which came to an end last year. The second phase actually began last year.

As programme officers in the region, we manage everything around the think tanks. In fact, I remember the response we gave to exactly the same question to one of the TTI donors recently. We were thinking on what is the best way to explain what we do, and the only image that came to our mind was that of a ninja. A ninja is a person that is a multitasker and he uses several tools to fight at the same time.  We use all of the different tools to play different roles. In addition to regular project management tasks, we play softer roles like being interlocutors, constructive peer support, etc. We play all of these roles at different times with different think tanks. So that is the flavour of what we do here.

AV: In the first phase, what were the goals that you were trying to achieve?

SV: We were hoping that through the TTI support we would be able to build a cohort of think tanks that would be more effective in influencing policies in the areas that they wanted. This was the Theory of Change for us. We want to provide think tanks the opportunity to do with their institutions what they think needs to be done in order to strengthen themselves. How do we provide that opportunity? By offering core support in three broad areas: research quality, organisation performance, and policy engagement through their communications area. As you can imagine, these three areas together constitute almost the entirety of what a think tank is and does. We also provide dedicated capacity building and technical support in select areas for interested groups of think tanks.

AV: What amount of core support do you grant? Is there a limit?

SV: We established no more than 1/3rd of the think tanks’ budget as the thumb-rule. The principle that we used was that core support should be large enough for them to value the importance of the TTI, but small enough for them to not become dependent on our support. If the budget was huge, we would stop at 10%, 15%, but the limit was 1/3. We decided that we would not go beyond that amount regardless of the circumstances, unless the institution was very small. This means that depending on the institutions’ sizes we would have different orders of magnitude of support. In retrospect, we found that this rule of thumb worked.

AV: When TTI started in 2009, what were the strengths of the think tank community in South Asia?

SV: One was the fact that think tanks were flourishing and the entire community was doing quite well. They already had created a vibrant space where independent thinking was not only allowed and encouraged, but ideas were put to good use. Think tanks were also producing fantastic leaders. Not only as researchers, but leaders who eventually came into the world of policymaking and became policymakers themselves. The reverse case was also true, in the sense that a lot of governing board members and in some cases even the directors of think tanks, were people who had spent most part of their lives in the policymaking world. This actually enabled a unique kind of access and opportunity to influence both ways. So it was not only research influencing policy, but also, policy priorities of the times which were influencing the researchers.

A third strength was that a large number of think tanks had survived and grown for a long time. That clearly tells you that funding had not been an issue in any kind of fundamental sense. They have had the right kind of leaders and the right kind of resources.

Yet another strength was the fact that the think tank community worked in a large number of issues. So you could pick up any topic which is a social problem or a policy problem and you will have one or another think tank which has been working in the areas; that has been doing good research. There are of course exceptions, but by a large this has been true.

Finally, I would say that if you drew the list of the top 50, or top 100 of the “who is who” in the policymaking community in this region, the majority of them were members of a think tank’s governing board. This was really a major strength, but then, it was also an opportunity that was not being put to good use.

AV: How were governing boards being underused? What do you mean by that?

SV: Let me give you one example. Think tanks’ governing board members are among the best placed to provide access to top networks of governments, private philanthropists, donors, multilateral agencies and others who could likely be resource providers. They can bring in their networks and open amazing doors, but they are not leveraged as much as they could be. So in many cases we have seen governing board members playing no more than administrative roles: signing the annual balance sheets, hiring the executive directors, approving research programs and that’s pretty much it. They don’t go beyond and look at what ways their own credibility could be put in good use for resource mobilisation.

AV: In what other ways can boards help think tanks?

SV: So that’s one example of the potential role of boards. A second is on how do you think about the composition of a governing board? In my mind this is not a trivial question. Who should constitute your governing board? How many members should the board have? In my view there must be a more fundamental way of thinking who should be the members of your governing board. Surely it must be people from your network, but also people from other networks; people that bring a very specific body of knowledge and expertise, experience, and networks that would be the most useful for a particular think tank in a particular time. These are some of the questions that need to be thought through. Do think tanks think about this? I would say that by large, they don’t.

AV: Apart from this issue with the governing boards, what other weaknesses in think tanks did you notice at the beginning of the programme?

SV: A second problem was communication and the focus of outreach. Although think tanks in general were quite effective influencing policy, there was a lot of room to improve their policy outreach function. One of the areas in which think tanks have benefited more has been in the area of strengthening the communication and outreach function. I remember once a researcher walked up to me in one of our first regional meetings in 2010 and expressed these concerns: Why are you focusing on communication? We are researchers. Our job is actually to produce good quality research that can stand the scrutiny of peers. We are published in peer-reviewed journals, and that is pretty much where our role comes to an end. We are not advocates or lobbyists.

In a way he was complaining about why TTI was giving so much importance to communication. I also remember there was another institution where there were a lot of senior researchers who actually came up to me when we wanted them to adopt social media. There was a huge amount of discomfort among the researchers. And yet, two or three years later in this very same organisation, this very same group of researchers told me they wanted to receive training on communication. They wanted to learn how to speak to a camera, how to communicate their entire research in two sentences or a two-minute video, etc. That has been a very arduous task, but it has been a fantastic experience.

AV: What lessons are left from the first phase? What is working?

SV: Speaking for myself, I think there are four Cs –if I may- that we are learning about. The first one is the value of Core Support. Second we are learning the importance of context. The same core support works far better in one situation than in others. We haven’t done a randomized control trial but we certainly have a very good sense on why it has worked or not in some cases, and what is the role of context in improving the likelihood of core support to work towards strengthening the effectiveness of think tanks.

The third C is the importance of Collaboration. Bringing think tanks together – and this is one of the unique contributions that TTI has made to the think tank community- has allowed the directors to come around and talk on institutional matters as opposed to thematic. Things like, how do you hire a good professional? How do you raise resources? How do you develop a good communication strategy?

By exchanging notes and ideas, and sharing some of the successful models, the learning curve has been shortened for the entire group of think tanks. It has also spurred collaboration. A lot of think tanks didn’t know about many others that were part of the think tank cohort. So they learned about their institutions. Also, there has been exchange of professionals- not only researchers but non-researchers as well. One institution actually visited another one to learn about how to run a financial management area on a think tank.

The fourth C is the importance of dedicated Capacity Building, which is a part of TTI support.

AV: The discussion about core funding makes me think of the Latin American experience, where, for many years, think tanks received generous core or institutional funding so they could survive in periods of economic and political crises. Just as you now find here in South Asia, there we find a common complaint that new funding is project-based and this does not allow them the freedom to grow as organisations. There has been a shift on how donors think about their grant making strategies –possibly because Latin America is a middle income region where resources are not scare; only not allocated to research.

Still, considering the positive changes the think tanks involved in the TTI have had, do you think core support as a grant-making strategy will make a comeback among donors?

SV: Unlikely in the near term in the current shape and form as is TTI. I think it is unfortunate but I think it is unlikely because clearly donors are increasingly demanding greater value for money which means more quantifiable indicators and more attributable results. In the world of policy and research, there is only so much that you can do to meet these two terms. Also, as research becomes more and more interdisciplinary, this will become a greater challenge. How do you bring all disciplines together to report on common metrics? That’s why I say it is unlikely for them to return to core support in the short term.

Why do I say it is unfortunate? Because institutions strengthen themselves, they renew themselves and, therefore, they become far more effective in the policymaking ecosystem if they have the space to do things and think about things they want to do not necessarily driven only by what others believe is the case, and have space to make mistakes and learn. They can appear to be sustainable, but institutions are running from one project to another. They are almost living on a daily wage.  They do not have the innate strengths to think independently and have an independent research agenda, and these two are critical for a good policy think tank. Doing policy-relevant research is fine, but it is also important to think on paradigm changes in the policy frameworks. As a think tank you should not be forced or limited to only be “counting trees”. You should have the freedom to step back and think about the whole forest. Do we have the right kind of policy paradigm in which different rules or policy schemes are being ruled out? That is a legitimate question to ask because if you have the wrong base to start with, you can only think from the margins. Core support alone allows this opportunity.

Am I saying that core support of any type will come to an end? No, my sense is that this programme and several others that are providing core support and building the ecosystem have surely built certain awareness within the governments, multilateral agencies and funders in general that no matter what you want to fund or what is your agenda, at the end of the day you need certain amount of institutional support padding in your grant. So, in my view, what we are more likely to see is that donors will continue to have thematic-focused based support, but they will now include a more visible proportion of institutional support as part of that thematic support.

I do anticipate that we will see think tanks receive more aid from Southern institutions which so far has not been the case. For example, the Asian Investment Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Bank are two big global institutions that are being set up largely by Southern actors, with Northern institutions playing a relatively small role. Even Southern governments are beginning to notice the role of think tanks and beginning to provide support. I certainly anticipate that at least in India and few other countries where we have a history of rich industries, we will see them using part of their wealth for institutional building.

I do see some elements of this increase in philanthropic support to think tanks. This is my “crystal bowl” prediction.

AV: Now there are some US think tanks that have set-up shop in India. How do you see this phenomenon? How does it affect the Indian community of think tanks? Is it a threat to their sustainability? I wonder if these new emerging philanthropists may not be tempted to fund them instead of India’s own think tanks.

I think it is an opportunity as well as a challenge. It is an opportunity because their presence raises the bar for the entire think tank ecosystem in this country, on improving research quality, on improving researchers’ communications skills, just to mention two key things.

And also, they have been able to raise funds from domestic philanthropy. I understand that Brookings has actually raised 50% of their funds from domestic Indian philanthropists. So that gives me hope that there is a possibility that Indian think tanks could tap into that market. This will not be easy, don’t get me wrong. It is an area that needs dedicated work for a period of time, but there is some possibility of funds coming from these sources as well.

Their presence is also valuable because at the end of the day, they work in collaboration with other think tanks. They don’t work in isolation, they can’t. They create networks of think tanks and through these engagements they bring some of the best minds, and some of the best technologies and methods for research and policy-influence into the table. All of these are opportunities for Indian think tanks.

Is this a challenge too? Well, they are able to offer good salaries, they can work with the best of the field, and they are connected with some of the best universities. They will definitely create a huge pressure on the demand for senior researchers.

AV: So they are not coming with their own teams?

To the best of my knowledge, many of the researchers they have hired are Indians by nationality who have been educated abroad. In that sense, they have a very local face which is important if you want to work in this context. Your research is not likely to be accepted, certainly not in public domain, if you are not seen as part of this context.

So they are coming with the best people and networks, great specialisation, with a lot of history and a credibility that typically Indian think tanks have not enjoyed. All that will represent a challenge because they are a new player. But then, the opportunity for Indian think tanks is that there are areas that international institutions will find difficult to influence policy on, such as areas that are sensitive to state policy.

Now, I expect that they will eventually compete for the same market of people. For Indian think tanks it will be very difficult to hire good-quality researchers because international think tanks will try to hire the “crème” of the talent. Also, US think tanks have the financial cushion to do a lot of experiments which the Indian think tanks find difficult.

AV: Besides competition with foreign think tanks and the challenge of leveraging new domestic funds, what other challenges do you see Indian think tanks will face in the coming years?

Sustainability will remain a challenge both in terms of funding as well as human resources, which is pretty much outside the area of direct control of think tanks. It is still not a favourable environment for think tanks to become sustainable.

Universities are in continuous decline so the kind of people that are available for hiring are not from the best quality. Funding from government has been drying up and it continues to shrink every year. Operational environment in several countries is far from most favourable for think tanks to operate. We are hoping that these difficulties will be addressed and regulatory environment will ease, but we will have to see.