Supporting think tanks series: synthesis of the think pieces – context related lessons

19 March 2014
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 15 items

About a year ago I put together  a series on supporting think tanks where leading researcher and practitioners wrote think pieces on the subject. The series was intended to inform the evaluation of a pilot of the Knowledge Sector Initiative.

Below is a synthesis I wrote based on the think pieces. This will be the first of a series of posts related to the KSI that I will publish on this blog. This post is divided in two. The first part deals with context related lessons and the second with more practical implications and recommendations. [Also relevant to the KSI are blogs I wrote in Jakarta after a meeting on Governance and Management at SMERU.]

This synthesis is based on a series of think pieces commissioned to and offered by researchers and practitioners working across five continents. The current version includes the following pieces:

The authors wrote the think pieces from their own points of view and with the intention of informing an important effort such as the Knowledge Sector Initiative as well as furthering public debate on the subject of supporting think tanks in developing countries. They share this blog’s belief in the importance of publicly sharing knowledge.

In addition, some ideas have been included from conversations with well informed individuals (for instance, Norma Correa from Peru and Savior Mwamba from Zambia) as well as my own experience and research, much of which is documented in this blog. After the think pieces were published Julie La France from the Think Tank Initiative wrote a post of her own; and there is additional material in the Topic Page on Supporting Think Tanks.

The analysis and some of the conclusions and recommendations to the KSI were developed during the drafting of this synthesis. Additional questions were addressed as the result of feedback from the evaluation team, the Knowledge Sector Initiative, and DFAT (Australia) in Indonesia,

Finally, like the think pieces themselves, this synthesis presents a number of challenge statements and opinions by the author. These were intended to generate a discussion among the various parties involved in the Knowledge Sector Initiative and to inform the planning process. By publishing the pieces and the synthesis via On Think Tanks we hoped (and still hope) to be able to allow others to join the discussion.

This synthesis is structured in two main sections: a) context-related challenges (in this post); and b) some practical advice based on the think pieces (ni the next post) that an effort such as the Knowledge Sector Initiative could take into account. Since the KSI is now underway, these recommendations could be seen instead as ‘live options’ to keep in mind when deciding on a particular direction of travel. They could offer some ongoing food for thought.

Context: challenges that need to be taken into account

The think pieces offer interesting insights into the question of context. Yes, it matters, but why, how, and what does this mean for interventions to develop the research, policy analysis, and policymaking capacity of developing countries?

The think pieces identify at least six key aspects of the context that should appear high in any assessment of think tank support efforts: culture; politics; the labour market; information availability; donor–grantee relationships; and donor/grantee interests.

1) Culture: rules and behaviours

Ajoy Datta’s assessment of the lessons learned from a project to develop the research communication and management capacity of a public ‘think tank’ in Vietnam, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS), places culture at the core of the problems that the implementing ODI team (also working in the implementation of KSI) faced.

But rather than culture being the problem, Ajoy Datta accurately identifies a limited understanding of the culture by the consultants as the source of many of the shortfalls of the project. In a way, culture needs to be seen as a given –a constant– that the intervention, particularly if it is from abroad, cannot assume itself to be able to change. Culture, too, cannot be seen as an external factor –foreign or exogenous to the organisation or the project– and therefore something that can be kept out of the way or avoided but rather a set of rules and behaviours that are present within the organisation and that affect, directly, any intervention made on it; or by it.

Some examples of the kind of rules and behaviours that, according to Ajoy Datta, may not be given the necessary attention include (the reader should note that, as I write this, I find myself thinking ‘who would not know this already?’ but sadly, few do much about it):

  • Hierarchy: communication channels can be hierarchical but so is everything else, therefore including the participation of key people in different types of capacity development activities is necessary –for instance, senior researchers and managers may like to participate in study tours but not in workshops, which are deemed, by the organisation’s leaders, as below their position;
  • Relations: in the office, line-management hierarchies are both more important than simple formalities (as may be the case in an office in London or Canberra where employer and employee may still be able to engage as ‘equals’ later at the Pub) and at the same time not as important as personal relations between staff members. The latter are rooted deeply in the local culture and permeate the office space and all its rules and behaviours and can even clash with formal structures;
  • Losing face: this is a commonly-used term by many foreign consultants in developing countries but its consequences are rarely considered to their full extent. In this case, the consequence was that the evaluation of the intervention in VASS had to be cancelled. So in a way, the funders did not take this into account when designing the project but were fast to accept a significant change in it because they realised the damage that a negative evaluation would inflict on their relationship with the think tank. They decided to act on ‘losing face’ but too late.

Arguably then, interventions such as this one need to consider how to avoid situations where the consultants involved are not surprised to find that what they thought was going on was in fact not entirely accurate or true. The rules above may not always be difficult to identify but are very hard, certainly for anyone not subject to them, to fully understand. And there are likely to be many other rules that a foreign observer will simply not be able to identify –at least not in the short or medium-term.

Language proficiency, long-term experience in the country or society, a comparable professional experience (e.g. working in the same sector or type of organisation elsewhere), and close personal connections to the community can help to address the challenges that culture presents to an intervention. But this may take some time -are donors ready to wait?

2) Politics

The case of the House of Lords’ ‘internal think tank’ offers an interesting account of the way in which culture and politics collude to complicate things further for researchers. This case is perfectly relevant to think tanks too -they are, after all, political organisations.

In the international development literature exploring the links between research and politics, politics are often considered as an external factor or exogenous to the workings of think tanks. This translates intoanalyses of their external environments in an attempt to establish clear rules (for example, democracy leads to more think tanks) and addressing political actors as ‘audiences’ or ‘targets’, and their behaviour change as ‘objectives’. It also leads to studies that seek to explain the relationship between think tanks and politics; rather than think tanks in politics. It hardly ever considers them as political agents.

But the case of the House of Lords shows that politics is ever present and more so for an organisation that has to try to be as neutral as possible. The researchers in the British Parliament have to deal with a series of potentially contradicting factors, for example:

  • To work there, researchers must have a political interest and must be well connected to active political players (even party political) and to political debates and events to be able to do their job properly. If the researchers were unaware of the interests, views, positions, ideas, and so forth of the members of parliament that they seek to inform, their research findings and recommendations would fail to have an effect – and in fact could create significant problems for them and for the organisation. At the same time, the researchers must be able to work with and communicate to all parties and all politicians and must therefore avoid any expression of political preferences. This is also true for researchers in think tanks attempting to influence policymakers -unless they truly understand their politics, their advice will be quite irrelevant.
  • In their quest for neutrality, researchers must make a great effort to draw from as many sources of evidence and expertise as possible, but:
    • not all researchers in the Select Committee Office, as in many think tanks, have an area of expertise – at most they will develop broad portfolios around one or two policy areas;
    • not all issues benefit from a prolific and balanced body of knowledge and cadre of experts from whom to seek advice – some issues are ‘monopolised’ by the Right and others by the Left, some by non-government organisations, and others by the private sector, and so forth (not enough density in other words); and
    • often the turnaround of research outputs that Parliament demands is too quick to address the entire literature.

Of particular relevance to the issue of culture is that the rules that apply to a think tank in the Houses of Parliament are not, and cannot be, the same as the rules for any other organisation. To do good work, to excel, within these organisations, researchers must dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to understand their organisational cultures and to actively participate in them.

It is therefore difficult to accept, without some degree of intellectual resistance, that it is possible to undertake external needs assessments or rely on foreign (to the country and to the organisation) experts who can offer a sufficiently robust and complete picture of the culture and politics of the organisation. Nor can it be expected that the organisation’s own their researchers, communicators, and mangers will be able to reallocate sufficient time away from working with that culture and politics to champion changes with no immediate benefits for them -or without being appropriately remunerated. Experience suggests that this does not happen easily, not even among the better-resourced think tanks in the world.

Rather, promoting a culture of critical thinking an self-reflection within the organisations themselves may be a more appropriate approach. This, of course, could be hindered by cultural dispositions against self-appraisals and critique.

3) Labour market – human resources

An element of Stephen Yeo’s think piece on African think tanks, and easily inferred from the others, is that at the top of the list of the challenges that think tanks and policy research communities in developing countries face is the lack of sufficiently well qualified researchers – as well as managers, communicators, and others.

Stephen Yeo’s account of the challenge in Africa provides an excellent illustration of a vicious process: the best qualified economists tend to emigrate to higher paying (often foreign) organisations -organisations that in effect set the wage rate in their countries labour market. As a consequence, think tanks’ labour costs are much higher than the local market would dictate in the absence of these international competitors. In order to pay these wages, think tanks have to resort to these very same organisations for funding, the only ones capable and willing to pay. They risk becoming domestically unsustainable.

There are a number of contributing and compounding factors to this problem:

  • Universities remain largely forgotten by funders with increasingly shorter attention spans and a focus on short-term impact indicators;
  • Donors are normally risk averse and therefore unwilling to invest in new think tanks or policy research initiatives;
  • This unwillingness to fund new initiatives also reduces the pressure on existing think tanks to take the kind of decisive action that Goran Buldioski considers necessary for successful organisational development efforts; and
  • Limited human resources and competitors mean that a great number of policy issues are likely to go under-studied. And that those that are, are unlikely to enjoy the range of views that are necessary for a balanced public policy debate and essential for a public think tank.

In this context it is difficult to think of convincing benchmarks for think tanks and think tanks’ activities. Researchers’ labour markets are too small to find sufficient peers to learn from; think tank leaders cannot find convincing benchmarks to compare themselves and compete with; and donors themselves cannot find suitable comparators to assess the real effect of their interventions.

Rather, investing in research capacity in a country (rather than in a think tank), may be a more sustainable solution. It may allow funders like the KSI to exit as the local market takes over and assumes the responsibility for funding and staffing its own research and research centres.

4) The evidence base – information availability

Next to human resources (for research centres as well as for the media, consultancies, political parties, and so forth), the other key input necessary for a healthy policy research community is the availability of robust data. Quite simply, without it, researchers are dramatically limited in their capacity to fulfil their missions.

Hans Gutbrod’s assessment of think tanks in Eastern Europe is that the evidence-base on which think tanks (private and public) rely on is not sufficiently robust to sustain the kind of research and analysis that is required.

The focus on data in his think piece is significant for at least two other reasons. Firstly, it highlights an issue that organisational development initiatives rarely address: the enabling environment for the activity of research –not just for research organisations.

And, second, an opportunity for think tanks to fulfil functions not associated with direct policy influence; such as the provision of inputs of research and analysis, the identification or framing of problems to address, monitoring and evaluating social, economic, and political indicators, and so forth.

The case of Peru offers an interesting example of the effect that data availability can has on policy research. In the early 2000 the Peruvian government launched SIAF, an online service that provides up-to-date information on public expenditure across the country. SIAF joined a portfolio of national surveys(livelihoods, demographic and health, employment, etc.) that had been made public by the National Institute of Statistics. These data sources provide researchers (particularly young researchers looking for opportunities to practice) with the inputs they need to undertake policy relevant research and analysis even in the absence of sufficient funding.

In Zambia, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflexion produces a monthly food basket index that has far reaching influence -beyond what other much more expensive and fancier centres can ever hope to achieve. The index is a conversation piece accesible to policymakers, the media, and the general public.

5) Donor/Grantee interests

Why are funders not always keen to support the development of human capital (in the broader sense) and data generation –even if these are obviously critical for the sustainability of the think tanks they support? Why do they often find it hard to recognise and respond to cultural and political expressions (the comments above should not be, by now, a surprise to anyone)?

This can be partly explained by the private interests of both funders and grantees. Like all other players in the policy research communities of any country they, too, have agency. (Funders’ interest are usually assumed rather than adequately exposed.)

The think pieces refereeing to think tanks and those focusing on funders are clear about this. Goran Buldioski, as the head of a funding body himself, provides a clear illustration of this point. The decisions that funders make are not just technical, they are the consequence of a complex set of factors that include institutional and even personal policies, beliefs, and experiences. In the case of bilateral funders, these factors include and are dominated by domestic politics. The Aid Industry has been rather effective in portraying itself as non-political to the world but this is far from the truth.

Mixing funders together in the same group of analysis, just as with think tanks, is not useful. ACBF and the Think Tank Fund could never be expected to respond to similar challenges in the same way. The former is a former World Bank Initiative and an international body with a complex governance structure; while the latter a project of George Soros’ foundations, much more managerial in its functioning: their organisational cultures are dramatically different. Their contexts, too, are different; so are their historical development and experiences. The close, long-term and intricate linkages of their leaderships to their respective academic and policy communities further strengthen and complicate the nature of these differences.

The same is true for the grantees supported by these funders. Their motivations are different, their staff come from different backgrounds, they work in different environments, and so forth. For instance, many of the think tanks supported by the Think Tank Fund emerged out of civil society organisations active in the struggle for independence and democratic strengthening that Easter Europe and the Balkans underwent between 30 and 20 years ago; in fact many are for-profit companies. Many ACBF grantees on the other hand are public policy research centres set up to support established governments economic policy capacity.

Whatever these are, the main challenge appears to be in finding the right match between their respective interests. A coincidence of interests is more likely to deliver better organisational development results –as the new strategy of the Think Tank Fund proposes. But it can also have dangerous negative effects in which a close-knit community rapidly turns into a clique that keeps others from entering the sector and dramatically limits its potential –as the cases from the Africa and the experience in Latin America could suggest.

It is therefore not enough to understand each others’ interests but it is necessary to then work to promote a relationship between the two that may have positive social consequences.

This may imply that some think tanks may be better served by helping them find the most appropriate funders for them. Rather than attempting to ‘fund them all’, individual funders could seek to ‘help them all’ (or most of them) to find the right sort of funding from the right sort of funders.

6) Donor-grantee relationships

Another factor of the context that is not, as usually assumed, exogenous, but in fact crucially endogenous to a support process, is the nature of the donor-grantee relationship. Ajoy Datta, Goran Buldioski, Stephen Yeo, Norma Correa, and Saviour Mwamba (the latter two in conversations rather than in the think pieces) all agree that the relationship is a direct explanatory variable for the outcome of think tanks’ development.

There are, not surprisingly, elements of the culture and politics that permeate these relationships. Similarly, the origin and life histories of the staff of think tanks and funders play an interesting role in the formation of these crucial relationships. Some of the most interesting suggestions from the think pieces include:

  • Donors are as dependent on the grantees as the grantees are on them. The case of Vietnam offers a perfect example of this. In this case, UNDP had a clear interest to protect VASS’ officials from ‘losing face’ and continue supporting them even in the absence of an independent assessment of the intervention because VASS was the only ‘game in town’. Stephen Yeo’s assessment is similar. In many African countries there are only a handful of think tanks (certainly only one or two economic policy think tanks) but donors are under pressure, through their own culture and politics, to disburse funds. Encouraging competition between think tanks for access to support could provide a solution, but more important may be to encourage the incorporation of new organisations to the policy research community. Focusing on competition for funding alone may lead to risk averse practices and further dependency on a small number of funders;
  • Capacity building interventions have become income generating or business development efforts. Goran Buldioski’s think piece argues that some think tanks are keen to accept these interventions as a way of securing a relationship with the funders and accessing additional funds for other purposes. Others, as in the case of Vietnam, take advantage of capacity building interventions to secure income for their employees’ participation. These are all strategies that organisations under funding pressure seek in order to meet their missions. The Think Tank Fund’s new strategy addresses this by demanding that the think tanks themselves invest in their own capacity development as a condition for further support;
  • Donors compete with the grantees for human resources. The labour market point above highlights this issue in greater detail but it could be noted that often the relationship between donors and their grantees is a double edged sword: for good researchers, the funder, particularly if it can introduce them to new and more profitable markets, is also a highly desirable employer. So think tanks risk losing their best researchers to their own funders. Among the options available to address this, the following may be considered: supporting the development of the tertiary education sector (in parallel to supporting to think tanks); strengthening links to domestic and international universities; using the web and human resource professional services to expand think tanks labour market to include researchers, managers and communicators outside their own policy research communities and even countries; attracting national researchers and policy entrepreneurs currently based overseas (the returnees who have seen the number of Chinese think tanks soar in the last decade), and so forth;
  • Donors and grantees are not always keen on new players. Donors are naturally risk averse and therefore rarely invest in new think tanks. Stephen Yeo’s account of the recent history of donor involvement in Africa (and Norma Correa’s comments for Latin America) illustrate this very clearly, particularly as this is beginning to show as a consequence of the Think Tank Initiative’s intervention in the region. Think tanks themselves perceive a short-term benefit from keeping their community small (take, for instance, the TTI funded only membership of Latin America’s ILAIPP); as new players would affect their influence and reduce their income. As a consequence policy research communities in many developing countries (from Latin America and Africa to Asia) keep entry costs very high and competition, including the competition of ideas, low. Unfortunately, small communities also limit their capacity to access and develop new ideas. Efforts to increase the policy research community (even across borders) can help avoid this. Funders can encourage the formation of networks with other think tanks inside and outside the country, support new think tanks and start-ups, incorporate opinion leaders and public intellectuals to their initiative, and so forth;
  • Very close, but not honest enough. Often the relationship is too close for the think tanks to remain independent of the funders. This can lead to interventions that do not necessarily benefit them or to the donors not being able to be objective about the think tanks’ performance. In other cases the relationship is infrequent and impersonal and therefore difficult to develop the kind of rapport that is necessary to invest in and sustain long-term organisational development efforts. In a way, a three-party arrangement like the one present in the KSI in Indonesia or in DFID’s Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme may offer a solution: funder and contractor can provide ‘checks and balances’ on each other. But they must all be able to keep each other ‘checked and balanced’.

Being honest, objective, and critical about the relationship emerges as a key lesson to consider for KSI and other similar interventions. And this involves being honest, objective, and critical about the culture and politics of all those involved. Support initiatives therefore need to be studied themselves –they ought to be treated as a subject of study for those involved as well as for third, objective, parties.

Keep reading part two for recommendations based on these lessons.