Stella Utica is project manager at the Institutul de Politici Publice, a think tank in Moldova. In 2017, Stella joined the On Think Tanks Fellowship programme.+
Enrique Mendizabal: Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Stella Utica: A few years ago I decided that I should answer such a question by stating that, first of all: I am a young woman. This should be said in a world where both the successes and the opinions of women are undermined or unheard.
I lived in Romania for six years, where I obtained a bachelor degree in political science and a master’s degree in security and diplomacy from the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration from Bucharest. A year after I finished my studies, I returned to the Republic of Moldova, where I was hired as a Communication Consultant by the Institute for Public Policy (Institutul de Politici Publice).
EM: How did you come to work at a think tank? Why?
SU: Sincerely speaking, I did not really choose to work at a think tank. In fact, I always imagined myself working in a public institution. The job at a research organisation was an opportunity that was offered to me and I took advantage of it at the right time. I still think that it is one of the best decisions that I have made.
EM: What is Institutul de Politici Publice? What does it do?
SU: Institute for Public Policy is both a research organisation and a non-governmental organisation. We develop ideas which, in the end, come into being as solutions to the most stringent societal problems. Afterwards, depending on the resources available we pilot or implement certain solutions that will address those problems. However, we specifically focus on the following issues: reform in the education system, resolution of internal conflicts and the integration of ethnic minorities, internal security, energy security, and anti-corruption measures.
EM: What is your role? How did you get that job?
SU: I was recommended by an acquaintance. Afterwards, I submitted my CV and went through a two-step interview. I started working as a communication assistant within a project based on promoting the benefits of Moldova’s association to the European Union. Now, I am a project manager, but also, an assistant for institutional development related needs.
EM: In this role, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
SU: I have faced a lot of challenges. But, in time, I learned either to manage these challenges in the best way I can or to reduce their impact on my work. Despite this, I am still confronted with one major challenge, which is the constant involvement of young researchers and volunteers in our work and the adaptation of our work to their needs and interests.
EM: Can you expand on this a bit more? What role do young researchers and volunteers play at IPP? Why are they so central to your work?
SU: In my opinion, young people are essential for bringing a new/ maybe even, a more progressive perspective into our work. As long as we reflect that perspective, we can keep them engaged and thus ensure a continuity to our policy projects. For now, we hardly succeeded to trigger interest in our work. Mostly because, we do not apply innovative approaches.
EM: What would you say are the main challenges that think tanks in Moldova face today?
SU: The main challenge that think tanks in Moldova face is people’s low level of consumption and understanding of their products. This is likely due to the fact that they perceive think tanks’ focus to be on intangible issues or problems.
Another challenge, strongly related to the first one, is political parties’ ignorance of think tanks’ work. This is likely because think tanks are an inconvenience for their hidden agenda.
EM: What could think tanks do to address this?
SU: In order to address both of these challenges, think tanks should portray themselves as indispensable actors of civil society, as the critical elite that ensures the accountability and the efficiency of the governmental structures. Once the society at large perceives them as such, the government would be left with no other solution than to accept them as equal partners.
EM: But how can think tanks do this? Some commentators in the region suggest that think tanks need to pay greater attention to communicating directly to the public rather than to policymakers or experts. What do you think?
SU: I would agree that think tanks should communicate directly to the public or to their specific target groups and definitely not only with the purpose of “consulting their opinion” or “getting them to agree on policy options”, but for the main purpose of ensuring constant collaboration and share of information. I would be in favor for policy initiatives to be led by community groups instead of policy-makers or experts. A good example in this regard are the ballot measures from the U.S: a community group comes with a legislative proposal and in case it gathers sufficient public support, the proposal is included on the ballot and is subjected to a public vote.
EM: And in the future? What will think tanks in Moldova be worrying about in the next 5 years -unless they do something about it now?
SU: As I see it now, the independent think tanks in Moldova will be faced with the impossibility to communicate their work through the media channels with a national coverage due to the strong resistance from the government. This scenario is valid only if both civil society and the development partners will not be able to generate alternative sources for information and dissemination or to eliberate the existent ones.
EM: This suggests a shrinking civic space. Are think tanks under pressure in this respect? Besides a low demand for research is there an active effort to undermine them?
SU: Think tanks in Moldova, together with other non-governmental organisations, are under great pressure. There is a tendency to portray civil society organisations both as entities that try to divide the society and as political instruments in the hands of the extra-parliamentary parties. Moreover, alternative and compromised civil society organisations are created in order to support and promote the non-democratic government initiatives. +In this context, it is very hard for average people to distinguish between the independent, transparent and objective voices and those which are a mere reflection of party interests.
EM: You have joined the On Think Tanks Fellowship Programme. How do you think this will help you and your organisation?
SU: For me, it is an excellent platform for sharing ideas and getting feedback from people facing similar challenges. Since we will contribute towards providing new models and practices for leadership this directly impacts the organisations we are working for and it shifts our role within it. I believe that at the end of the fellowship, the least we can achieve – and this is not something minor – is the understanding of how and with what we can impact the ongoing change.