Setting up a think tank: lessons from Timor-Leste (Part 1: context matters)

19 February 2018
SERIES Setting up a think tank in Timor-Leste

In 2017, the Asia Foundation asked On Think Tanks to assess the prospects for establishing a Public Policy Institute (PPI) in Timor-Leste. Such an Institute would build on work carried out by the Policy Leaders Group (PLG), an informal group of reform-minded individuals, supported by the Foundation, that had met regularly since 2013 to discuss topical policy issues and provide evidence for the policy-making process in Timor-Leste. Members of the PLG had been discussing how the Group might evolve into a more formalised institution: the Asia Foundation provided the opportunity for OTT to explore how this might be achieved.

Our work began with a review of background documents, followed by a two-week visit to Dili. During the visit, we interviewed over 40 stakeholders, including policy-makers, activists from NGOs, academics, bilateral donors and international organisations. This gave us a good sense of the local context, and in particular the research, evidence and policy environment in Timor-Leste. This, together with our knowledge of think tanks in other regions, suggested a possible blueprint (or rather blueprints) for the new institute, the steps necessary to create it, as well as a set of questions that still needed to be addressed.

It is too soon to say whether a new think tank will emerge in Timor-Leste, but in preparing the assessment we had to give some thought to how to adapt “generic” institutional models to local contexts. We thought this might have some wider interest and applicability.

First, some important features of the Timorese context:

  • Timor-Leste is a small nation (around 1.3 million people). Experience from the region and internationally shows that countries of this size have faced challenges in creating – but more importantly sustaining – policy research institutes. Size matters not only for staffing in the short term but also for funding over the longer term, and we found we needed to take this into account in the design of a new Institute.
  • Human capital also matters, especially for knowledge intensive institutions such as think tanks. Timor faces serious challenges here as well. It emerged less than twenty years ago from a long and bitter struggle for independence, during the course of which its education system was badly damaged. Universities have emerged since then, but creating a new generation with policy analysis skills cannot be done overnight.
  • The country has offshore oil and gas reserves that generate significant revenues. Most of these revenues flow through the government (or the sovereign wealth fund), and this creates two challenges for a new institute. First, the Timorese government has the resources to fund a think tank, but relying on government funding makes it hard for an institution to remain independent. This might be more of a longer term worry than an immediate problem for the Institute, but there is an important short run issue as well. Skilled and articulate policy analysts are one of the keys to a successful policy research institute. The government of Timor-Leste has a pressing need for exactly the same people, and has the resources to pay them well. So staffing a new think tank is likely to be challenging.
  • The think tank’s communications strategy can’t ignore the media landscape in Timor-Leste. Most Timorese live in rural areas, and literacy rates, while rising, are still low. Print media have low circulations, and are mainly read in urban areas. Radio and (to a lesser extent television) have greater reach and impact. The use of social media, however, has grown at a very rapid rate in the past few years and now plays a very important role, which a new think tank would need to take into account

In the Timorese context, we thought that the staffing issue was particularly salient: Who would actually do the policy research and analysis? This could be done “in house”, by the Institute’s own staff; or alternatively by experts commissioned to work on specific pieces of research for the Institute. Relying on in house researchers would mean competing with the government for skilled policy researchers. But relying on experts outside the think tank brings its own set of problems. Expertise is scarce even within Timor-Leste (for the reasons given above). It is more plentiful outside the country, but foreign experts can be harder to manage and are sometimes often seen as lacking legitimacy. In practice the choice is seldom either / or: most think tanks rely on a mixture of in house and external expertise. The key issue is the balance between them and how this may evolve over time as the think tank grows and the context in which it works changes.

In the next article in this series we discuss some of the key factors that international experience suggested should be considered in choosing between in house and external expertise. While these factors were particularly relevant to the experience addressed in this article, they are also likely to be important for any effort to setup a new think tank, especially in small countries with limited research capacity.