As part of the 2018 OTT-TTI Fellowship Programme, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Think Tank Initiative Exchange (TTIX) along with 23 other Young Leaders from around the globe. The TTIX was the last workshop held under the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) programme, dedicated to strengthening capacity of independent policy research institutions in the developing world. As a newcomer to think tanks, I had a great interaction with thinktankers and funders with the added benefit of shared learning with other Fellows.
Here are some of my key takeaways from the workshop. These are drawn from the conversations I had and the sessions I attended.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an inspiring vision of what the future could look like, and a quantitative means to measure progress. It was interesting to hear funders say that it is a “genuine question in everyone’s mind” as to how to set the agenda and priorities for funding in the next decade while factoring in the 2030 Agenda. Further, some thinktankers felt the SDGs were ‘the elephant in the room’, diverting resources away from their own priorities. The question going forward (for everyone, whether think tank or funder) is how to ‘join up’ one’s own agenda with the SDG agenda.
One of the funders shared principles of effective communication for think tanks when soliciting funds. A strong pitch would appeal to ‘shared goals’ and would frame the think tank’s work as part of a larger purpose. Thinktankers were encouraged to “talk to funders like they talk to each other” and bring the same passion to the discussion. The value proposition of think tanks – to be able to provide detailed political context etc.- were discussed. Finally, a ‘pitch for core funding’ was presented, framed as a request for support that would allow the think tank the flexibility for strategic decision-making towards shared objectives, in an uncertain political context. The think tank marketplace also provided opportunities to practice pitching, albeit in a different context.
3. Thinking beyond think tanks
Now that the TTI programme is concluding, think tanks are understandably eager to continue getting core funding as before. However, the broader and deeper question funders are asking is: What is the best way to support evidence-based policy in the future? The scope of this discussion is wider than just think tanks and would include, for example, decision makers, intermediaries and networks. Open questions include whether the entry point to successor programmes should be broadened and how best to leverage the existing networks created by the TTI programme. In this new paradigm, think tanks would play new roles – perhaps as “brokers” who understand regional policy context and are capable of facilitating conversations with the broader set of stakeholders. These and other facets of a future agenda, including education and engagement of citizenry, and improving the capacity of decision makers and policy processes to use research, came out in an interesting group discussion between funders and think tanks.
4. Scalable knowledge from the South
As it stands, research from the global North is usually assumed to be globally relevant; research from Southern think tanks is automatically considered to be regional context. There is an opportunity to challenge this “hegemony of the privileged.” The challenge would be to reframe Southern research and create new value through its globalisation. This would require excellent communication and production of ‘scalable knowledge operating at several levels.’ This was also part of the future agendas discussion and was considered an interesting place for further North-South collaboration.
5. Meteors and snowballs
The drivers of global change were presented through the metaphor of ‘meteors and snowballs.’ Meteors are unforeseen, dramatic forces, such as rising populism and national-interest first movements. Agenda 2030 and the increase in migration are also meteors. Snowballs are forces of change that are steadily gathering momentum (like a snowball rolling downhill). They include the slowing pace of global poverty reduction, China’s increasing presence in the global development scene etc. Think tanks face the challenge of bringing all their knowledge, skills, expertise, credibility and relationships to bear on the pressing issues of our rapidly changing world.
Going to TTIX as part of the OTT-TTI Fellowship was a very rewarding experience. I got the chance to share learnings and critically examine sessions in a great peer group of young think tankers. I can confidently say that the experience has qualitatively changed my thought process. Going forward, I’ll look to apply these and other takeaways at Public Affairs Centre (PAC), especially towards informing strategy to meet the challenges we will face going forward.