Last week we published the first part of an interview with Fred Carden, Lead Technical Advisor for the Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative.
This is the second part:
Enrique Mendizabal: Let me ask you more specifically about the key implementing partners of the KSI. Could you describe the main partners and what they bring to it?
Fred Carden: The main partners are RTI International, which is an American nonprofit research firm. That’s the firm that put the consortium together which includes the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, and the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.
All of the partners in this consortium are themselves focused on the whole research policy question. They’re all very active in that space, as researchers, in the translation of knowledge and keenly interested in all the issues around that. What that means is that they all have people who have interesting experiences, most of them in Indonesia. They have strong experience in the sector, and have good research methodologies if we’re talking about building research capacity.
If you think about a firm like RTI, it’s a nonprofit research group that has managed to survive and thrive over the last 50 years. It has interesting background and experiences in terms of how you survive as a research consultancy without core grants from several institutions. They had grant money from the government and the local universities but they became independent quite quickly in terms of financing, so they bring a lot of experiences in terms of large independent research centers
We have an interesting group of people that have experience in the sector; also the Nossal Institute of Global Health has a lot of background in health and health system research with strong experience in Indonesia. ANU has areas of social protection and education, ODI has a strong background in research policy ideas and linkages as well as the monitoring and evaluation side, and RTI has a long history in Indonesia and in a lot of experience and exposure in health and education as well as social protection.
EM: So are the different streams of the programme divided across the consortium partners? Are there leads that each one has?
FC: There aren’t at this point, and I don’t know if that’ll emerge. Certainly Nossal will be more focused on health sector work, but in terms of the research methodologies experience that they can bring, that cuts across all sectors. ODI is more on the research to policy processes perhaps as an institution, but again that cuts across all the dimensions of the work. ANU and RTI, all of the partners, have exposure on most of the programme in some way. It’s not really divided up. I’d like to avoid dividing it because it makes it harder to put things back together.
EM: I was asking because I remember from the proposal documents –one of the concerns raised about the design was that the supply/demand/intermediaries components were separated in three different areas of leadership; so I was wondering if when the consortium was put together there was also a separation between each organisation.
FC: No, there is a very explicit desire in this consortium not to let that happen. We didn’t want to see a separation because the lines are too fuzzy. As you said, you get research in government environments, you get advocacy within government agencies and intermediation –the elements are just too blended to separate them and it would become too artificial.
EM: Are there any potential risks that you’ve got to look out for? This is such a large programme for a sector that is not that developed that it could have a fairly disruptive effect. I have suggested that there could be salary inflation for some experts, or that some organisations within the system that are already better than others might end up benefitting more than the rest and taking over the debate. Do you see any risks that KSI needs to avoid in implementing this project?
FC: I think one of the big challenges as with any donor funded initiative is to stick with the principles in the design that the issues that we address be demand led. A lot of experience and studies of donor success and failure has focused on that issue. Too much decision making from the outside doesn’t lead to very successful projects or programmes but at the same time it’s quite challenging to have a programme that is demand led because the schedule that it follows doesn’t really follow the donor’s. The biggest challenge we’ll face is ensuring that we remain demand led. There’s strong support for doing that but it will still be difficult.
EM: Demand led implies that you might not get demand from some organisations, which in practice means that there won’t be demand for funds or technical assistance. The donors in this case need to be ready to say “we’ve allocated X amount of money but we won’t use it”. Unfortunately, that’s hard for donors to accept because they need to use the money and meet the schedules they have set out at the start. Is that the KSI’s job, to educate the funder?
FC: I think a lot of donors understand this. I think that there are just a lot of pressures that make it difficult to follow through. Our challenge will be figuring out the follow through, and supporting the partners and AusAID in managing that. I think it’ll be doable, because I think there’s tremendous will to see it happen but it’ll be hard work.
EM: Is the KSI working at the national level as well as the subnational level?
EM: But still based on health and education sectors as a way in?
FC: Health, education, and social protection; yes. I think in some cases there will be linkages in terms of issues between the national and the subnational level. We’ll be working on both levels, how and how much we’re still figuring out. That will depend to some extent on the institutions going through the selection process.
EM: You mention that all of the members of the consortium have experience in Indonesia. But I find it a real challenge to come from outside to a context and try to build local institutions in that context. How do you avoid developing a poor version of a British, US or Australian system instead of an Indonesian system?
FC: I guess that goes back to the demand led nature of the programme because if you think of that as a principle it certainly extends to how the donors operate with the programme, and it extends to how we operate within it, too. There’s tremendous excitement among the partners to get very active in the project very quickly. As a management group, what we’re saying to people is that we’re just beginning to work with these organisations; we haven’t even selected them yet. We can’t tell you where the support will be needed because it has to come from them. That principle takes us through the entire piece: how we deal with the donor on the programme, how we deal with our consortium partners, how we work ourselves and how we are able to sit back until organisations are ready. We may think we know what they want and need but if they don’t actually want it it’s not going to be much use for them. Our own capacity is to sit back and deliver what people need when they need it.
One of the most interesting people I ever worked with was from Indonesia, and he always made the point that you have to start where people and organisations are, because those are the issues that they can manage and have to deal with because there are urgencies for them. As soon as, as an outsider to a community, you start saying this is more important, first of all you don’t really know that and second of all it may be more important to you but not to anybody else. It’s our capacity to follow the principle of being demand led that is the biggest challenge and probably the most important factor in success..
EM: In my mind, then, demand led has at least two important implications. One is, following Goran Buldioski and the Think Tank Fund’s approach to supporting think tanks, that demand doesn’t mean just asking for something but actually doing the groundwork before asking. It’s not just going to the funder or service provider and saying “we want to be supported for this or that”, but having looked at what’s around them and even investing up-front before asking for help. The other one is that sometimes that help will have to come from outside the consortium. You will have to open up and look for new sources of advice and capacity building, depending on what comes out from the assessments and the processes that the think tanks and other organisations will go through. People and organisations that were not in the original bid, so to speak.
FC: You’re right on both counts. Demand led doesn’t mean “I want this therefore you get it”, it’s being more informed and clearer. The term that the Asia Foundation used during the pilot program was being the critical friend of the institution, so it’s really about building relationships that allow you to challenge, to question, to debate, but ultimately to be clearer that what’s being done is being done in the understanding and the desire of the institution receiving the support. That’s absolutely right.
Secondly, we know that there will be things that happen that we have to go outside our circle, no matter how strong our consortium is. We will have to go elsewhere. When we think about financing models for think tank institutions, we don’t just want to look at the four partners to see what models they are using. That’s some of the financing models but there are many others and it would be a mistake to just stick to the consortium. We have the ability and the opportunity to go beyond that.
EM: You have mentioned sustainability a few times. My sense from having talked to think tanks for the past few years is that you need people and you need money. For those things you need a strong tertiary education system and a strong domestic philanthropic community whether it comes from foundations, or directly from the private sector, or a strong domestic research funding strategy or willingness. I know AusAID has a tertiary education programming coming along. Are you envisioning a formal link to that programme, or is it just “wait and see” right now?
FC: Not having seen the design of the programme yet, it’s hard to say. Certainly we see a great advantage in collaborating with AusAID programmes and that would be an important one because having a strong tertiary education sector is important. We will also be building linkages with a variety of institutions here in Indonesia that are involved in supporting tertiary education and building the research sector, like universities and associations, so we will be building some of those linkages but obviously we don’t have the resources to do a huge amount directly in the treasury sector. We’re much more focused on staying on the research- policy connection. The group of organisations, think tanks, and those organisations that are really focused in that space and linked to universities.
EM: In terms of funding, you mentioned the state. I was wondering if a lot of these programmes, like this one, the Think Tank Initiative, or DFID’s Economic Advocacy Programme in Zambia are missing out the philanthropic sector: the private individuals and corporations that don’t yet do philanthropy at a professional level and not at the scale required to make these sectors sustainable in the long term. Australia’s not going to keep funding Indonesian research for the next 20 years without questioning it, are they?
FC: If you think about who funds think tanks in other countries, like in Europe, the US, Canada they get some of their research funding from the state, but there are also foundations that fund research.
EM: But they’re mostly domestic foundations.
FC: Think tanks in the US and Canada are funded not only by government but by foundations, by the private sector, there’s funding coming from different sources. I would imagine for it to be strong here – first of all, organisations need money from different sources in order to be sustainable because if you only rely on one source you either become part of that source or you’re cut off. If you think about that model from North America then it would make sense to strengthen the ties and try to sell the idea of funding research to local philanthropic organisations and the private sector here as well.
The private sector can benefit from social science research in lots of ways. One could imagine that a rich sector here has that wide range of funding, not just from the government. There are foundations in Indonesia; they are fairly young as I understand it, but they exist. Some of them are already actively involved in the knowledge sector and others are not. That certainly is a group that we are watching and thinking about and learning about as well.
EM: I think that’s true. The private sector is increasingly subsidising social research by funding consultancies and also, slowly, foundations are starting to work through university based think tanks and learning to become research philanthropists which is different from simply giving money for building schools health centres or organising charitable activities. It’s a long process of learning. I just found out that Brookings goes around the world asking for donations for their programmes and they were recently in Chile doing a fundraising event. This is interesting because some think tanks are struggling to get funding from the same philanthropists.
FC: I think that’s what I was thinking of when I said that we need to explore more funding models. So when you think about funding think tanks that have a modicum of independence. RTI and ODI have models but there are more out there, and getting some cases of those models and talking with people who run those organisations would be a valuable contribution to talk about sustainability.
There is certainly much more to talk about and explore. We hope to continue the conversation as the programme develops and the partners implement it. We will certainly try to keep you posted.