Should think tanks be looking into the global development agenda?

3 December 2012

Last month took place the 2012 Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group (WBG). Within an extensive agenda of topics, the Program of Seminars joint a wide range of leaders to discuss global issues such as the current crisis, the management of natural resources and the development agenda beyond 2015. The meetings also included the Civil Society Policy Forum, a series of panels organised by the multilaterals or Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to discuss an even wider range of social, economic and governance issues.

In this context, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) organised a panel in which I participated, sharing research on the work influencing policy that think tanks in the south carry out. Besides participating in the panel, I had the opportunity of attending a variety of conferences and getting a general impression of where the global agenda is heading.  My main questions during the event were: Do think tanks participate in these events? Is there any value for southern think tanks to participate (both for their own agendas as for the events and participants)?

A glance at the agenda of the program of seminars and the civil society agenda revealed that it indeed included think tanks or other CSO’s that carry out research for development. However, the majority of the ones participating were international in nature: Brookings, CIGI, Save the Children, Oxfam among others. This is especially true on the Seminars that were intended as high-level conversation on global issues.  In one of these panels, for example, Homi Kharas from the Brookings Institute shared his vision on what the next development goals should look like, and what the measuring method should encompass.

One could argue that this is a natural space for these international think tanks, and that maybe they are better suited, in terms of their research agendas and priorities to comment on global issues. I am not content with this answer. Something about this view bothers me.

Well, it was expected that the international or development think tanks would be present, but the voice from what we normally call ‘the south’ was missing. Think tanks that view the development world as a whole are usually based in the ‘north’.  This reminds me of a friend’s comment on Latin American Studies. He said that there is no such thing as Latin American Studies in our universities; to study that, he said, you have to go Miami or further north. He was getting to the point that national issues tend to overtake our research agendas leaving little or no space for regional or global debates. Things are changing, but in the think tank world, it still seems that we are missing think tanks in the global south, focusing on global issues from a different perspective and taking them to these venues.

The other concern that worried me –and I think also worried many of the panelists who commented on it directly or indirectly–  is the disconnection between local and global agendas. At the end of the day, once we have a new global development agenda, who is going to make those changes happen? How can global goals be intertwined in national politics and policies?  This was an unanswered question that lingered throughout the different panels. Here I think that think tanks with experience on national politics and policy may have some ideas to share.

It has already been said how think tanks can be like a window for local politics, bringing new ideas from abroad. They could, however, also do the opposite work and inform global debates on the reality of carrying out reform at the national level. They could shed some light on the peculiarities of implementing policies locally or nationally which is crucial to the success of the next development agenda but that is a distant topic to global policymakers. Think tanks’ involvement, therefore, could not only entail the definition of specific goals but outlining the strategies to achieving them.

This might sound, to some national think tanks, as work they did not sign up to do when they began their careers: focusing on yet another audience to influence.  In fact, influencing the global agenda could be a full time job in itself, and not all think tanks will prioritize this in their strategies. Even so, it is still essential for think tanks working locally to follow the international agenda for even more pragmatic reasons:

  • It can inform our research agendas. Even in contexts where it is very relevant for policies to be developed locally, and we put a great effort to make research nationally relevant, there are benefits in connecting it with a broader agenda, both politically and academically. Knowing what is going on abroad is not only a one way processes by which think tanks bring in foreign ideas, but are able to frame local research for the a global agenda.
  • It can inform our funding strategy. Many national think tanks tend to still depend on foreign aid, having to balance constantly the vision and priorities of donors with the priorities in the national policy scenario.  It seems that following the global trends could allow think tanks to leverage funds while maintaining local relevance, by framing proposals in ways that could balance these two concerns.

Meetings like the WB/IMF annual meetings are just one sort of meetings that could look into. It could be even more interesting to look into other sort of meetings at the regional level, carried out by other types of international bodies that could be interesting for think tanks to participate in.